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

November

Northern Shrikes Arriving

The Northeast loses a lot of songbirds to migration in the fall, but it gains a few as well, one of which is the Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).   As days shorten and temperatures drop, this tundra-nesting bird migrates southward into southern parts of Canada and northern U.S., arriving in October and November on its wintering grounds. In some areas Northern Shrike movements and winter numbers have been associated with the movements of Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks.

The Northern Shrike is highly unusual in that it is a predatory songbird. Birds, mammals and insects are preferred over nectar, nuts and seeds. During the winter it preys mainly on small mammals (voles, mice, shrews) and birds. The Northern Shrike often kills more prey than it can immediately eat or feed its young, storing the excess food to eat later when available living prey may be scarce. The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gave it the name “butcher bird;” it often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where they hang until reclaimed by the shrike. (Photo by Mary Sue Henszey)

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Gypsy Egg Moths Prolific

The Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar dispar) was introduced to North America from France by E.L Trouvelot in 1869 who had hopes of breeding a silk-spinning caterpillar that was more resistant to disease than the domesticated silkworm.  Unfortunately, the caterpillars escaped into his backyard. About 10 years later, they began to appear in large swarms, and by the late 1880s they were causing severe defoliation in the area. Since then the Gypsy Moth has become one of the most destructive pests of hardwood trees in the eastern U.S. 

The adult female moths emerged from their pupae this summer.  With a life span of one week, the adults do not feed; they do, however, mate and lay eggs. Although the female moth has fully formed wings, she cannot fly.  She emits pheromones that attract males, mates and then lays a cluster of 75-1,000 eggs close to where she pupated.  She then covers them with buff-colored, hairlike setae from her abdomen, which serve as protection from predators and parasites.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring.  The larvae have a voracious appetite and feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. 

Gypsy Moth egg masses appear to be prolific this fall, perhaps because there has been no significant wet weather to fuel the fungus (Entomophaga maimaiga) that feeds on the Gypsy Moth. While there are other natural controls for Gypsy Moths (birds, squirrels, mice, etc.) they don’t prevent infestations.  If you wish to rid your woodlot of these caterpillars, you can remove the egg masses and pour boiling water over them.  Scraping the eggs onto the ground is less effective as they can survive temperatures of 20°- 30°F. degrees below zero.

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Bald Eagles Year-Round Residents In Much Of The Northeast

Most immature Bald Eagles migrate, but if adults have nested in an area where water remains open year-round, they are more likely to remain in or near their breeding territories all year, defending their nest site.  The risks that migrating pose are not worth it if they can get all the food they need (1/2 – 1 ½ pounds/day) to survive the winter, which they can in much of the Northeast.  In the past few decades, the number of overwintering eagles has been increasing in New England to the point where it is not unusual to see adult eagles near and even at their nests any month of the year. (The accompanying photo taken in Vermont on 11-14-20.)

Eagles do make changes in order to adapt to winter conditions.  While they continue to feed on fish, they also do a fair amount of scavenging in the winter, feeding on roadkills and animals such as deer that may have wandered onto the ice, fallen and not been able to get back up.

Another behavioral change that occurs is the tendency to gather in large numbers, clustering close together on branches at overnight roost sites.  Often stands of white pine provide the birds with some protection from the cold wind, thus allowing them to conserve energy.  An additional advantage of this communal life style is that they get cues from each other as to where sources of food may be by watching the direction in which the first birds take flight in the morning (those with a known source of food often are the first to leave the roost).

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Black-and-Yellow Argiope Spiderlings Hatching

Some species of spiders (including wolf and jumping spiders) overwinter as young adults and mate/lay eggs in the spring. Many spiders, however, mate in the fall, after which they lay eggs and die. Their white or tan egg sacs are a familiar sight at this time of year. One might assume that these species overwinter as eggs inside their silken sacs, but this is rarely the case as spider eggs can’t survive being frozen. Spider eggs laid in the fall hatch shortly thereafter and the young spiders spend the winter inside their egg sac.

Although egg sacs provide a degree of shelter (the interior is packed with very fine, very soft silken threads), the newly-hatched spiderlings do have to undergo a process of “cold hardening” in the fall in order to survive the winter. On nights that go down into the 40’s and high 30’s, these young spiders start producing antifreeze compounds, which lower the temperature at which they freeze. By the time freezing temperatures occur, the spiders are equipped to survive the winter inside their egg sac – as spiderlings, not eggs.  (Photos:  Black-and-Yellow Argiope egg sac and spiderlings – egg sac had been pecked open by a bird)

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Northern Cardinal Nests: Safety in Numbers

This is the time of year to keep an eye out for bird nests that were hidden by leaves all summer. Their location can reveal more than one might guess.  As with many bird species, the female Northern Cardinal does most of the nest-building herself, usually selecting a site that is in dense shrubbery, often in a tangle of vines.  Frequently there are two broods, but rarely is a nest reused.  Instead, a new nest is built for the second clutch of eggs, and it can intentionally be located quite close to the first nest.

The two pictured Cardinal nests were both built this year, only four feet apart in a grape vine-covered stand of Staghorn Sumac. Two different birds would not have nested so close to each other due to territoriality; thus, the same bird most likely built both nests. Ornithologists feel that the presence of old nests may function as protection against predation.  They found that when they placed an empty Cardinal nest adjacent to a Cardinal nest containing plastic eggs, there was significantly less predation than with single Cardinal nests. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo opportunity.)

(NB:  Even though most songbirds only use their nest once and then abandon it,  one needs a federal permit to collect bird nests.)

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Northern Cardinal Nests: Safety In Numbers

This is the time of year to keep an eye out for bird nests that were hidden by leaves all summer. Their location can reveal more than one might guess.  As with many bird species, the female Northern Cardinal does most of the nest-building herself, usually selecting a site that is in dense shrubbery, often in a tangle of vines.  Frequently there are two broods, but rarely is a nest reused.  Instead, a new nest is built for the second clutch of eggs, and it can intentionally be located quite close to the first nest.

The two pictured Cardinal nests were both built this year, only four feet apart in a grape vine-covered stand of Staghorn Sumac. Two different birds would not have nested so close to each other due to territoriality; thus, the same bird most likely built both nests. Ornithologists feel that the presence of old nests may function as protection against predation.  They found that when they placed an empty Cardinal nest adjacent to a Cardinal nest containing plastic eggs, there was significantly less predation than with single Cardinal nests. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo opportunity.)

(NB:  Even though most songbirds only use their nest once and then abandon it,  one needs a federal permit to collect bird nests.)

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Raccoons Preparing For Winter

Much like black bears, raccoons develop a voracious appetite in the fall and accumulate a life-sustaining layer of fat as a result (which comprises 50% of their weight).  Although raccoons are opportunists and will eat just about anything (except tomatoes), nuts (acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts, especially) and corn are the food of choice at this time of year.

When the temperature consistently drops to 26-28° F. raccoons typically seek shelter in dens (hollow trees, woodchuck and fox burrows). They are not true hibernators, but do enter a state of torpor for weeks and even months at a time when the temperature is low, the snow is deep and the wind is blowing.  It’s not unusual for several raccoons, usually relatives, to den together.

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Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks.

A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female.

The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the tom’s snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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Mystery Photo

What do you think made this six-inch-long impression in the snow?  Please enter guesses under “Comments” on the Naturally Curious blog (scroll down). Answer will be revealed on Monday, November 25.

(Photo by artist Susan Bull Riley – http://susanbullriley.com/ )

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Bird Nests Revealed

Deciduous leaves have fallen, revealing bird nests that were right under our noses all summer without our even knowing it.  In addition to building in specific habitats and constructing different sized nests, each species of bird uses a combination of building material that is slightly different from every other species. Because of this, the material a bird uses to construct its nest can be diagnostic as far as determining what species built the nest.  Is the nest lined with rootlets? Are grape vines incorporated into the nest? Is moss covering the outside of the nest?  Is there a shed snake skin woven into the nest? The answer to these questions and others can help narrow down the list of possible builders.

This is the time of year to look for nests and try to determine, with the help of a good field guide such as Peterson’s Field Guide to Bird Nests, the identity of the birds that built them.  (Be aware that possession of a bird nest, egg or feather of most migratory birds, even for scientific research or education, is illegal if you do not have a Federal Migratory Bird Scientific Collecting Permit.)

Sometimes you’ll find material in nests that surprise you — some contain man-made, as well as natural, materials. Among the most unusual examples of this are a nest built solely out of barbed wire by a Chihuahuan raven in Texas and the pictured clothes hanger nest built by a crow near Tokyo and photographed by Goetz Kluge.

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Some Ways Mammals Stay Warm In Winter

When temperatures drop significantly, mammals that stay active in the winter have a variety of ways to keep warm, one of which is to have layers of insulation to prevent their body heat from escaping.  Often there is a layer of fat under the skin. In addition to providing a source of energy, fat doesn’t transfer heat as well as other tissues such as muscle or skin, and thus helps to insulate an animal’s body. The next layer consists of a short, dense coat of underfur which is filled with air pockets that provide insulation.  Lastly there frequently is a third layer of oily, water-repellent guard hairs which excel at keeping out water. They are often transparent and hollow, providing extra thermal insulation.

Voles, mice, shrews and red squirrels use elaborate tunnels systems under the snow to escape cold temperatures and strong winds.  Flying Squirrels huddle together in groups to keep warm. Shivering is a warming technique used by many mammals, including humans.  And some active animals, like the pictured Gray Squirrel, simply find a sheltered spot in the sun, close their eyes, and soak up the warmth!  (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.)

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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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Spider Winter Survival Tactics

Spiders are cold-blooded, or ectotherms. Their body temperature is regulated by external sources and can vary with the environment without doing them any harm. When cold weather comes spiders that overwinter as adults adapt in several ways. Their metabolism slows down and they become less active. Eventually they become dormant, entering diapause, a hibernation-like state.  At the same time, they start producing glycol and protein compounds which act as antifreeze and lower the temperature at which their cells will start freezing.  A spider has to get to at least 23 degrees F. to freeze, and sometimes considerably lower.

Where a spider spends the winter depends in large part on the species. Some seek shelter in places where temperatures remain a little warmer than outdoors, such as in leaf litter, rock piles, building cracks and under loose bark. To help block cold wind, some will even build themselves a little pod with their silk, enclosing themselves until it is warm enough to become active again.  (Photo:  spider in silk pod behind loose bark)

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Autumn Beauty In A Bog

During the summer, peat bogs (acidic wetlands with soft, spongy ground composed largely of living and decaying (peat) sphagnum moss) display an abundance of colorful flowers, including those of bog laurel, rhodora, bog rosemary and numerous orchids including the vibrant grasspink, among others. With the onset of autumn, long after these blossoms have disappeared, an even more impressive blaze of colors erupts in bogs. The foliage transitions from summer green to autumn yellows, oranges and reds. Tamarack’s deciduous needles form a golden haze backdrop before falling to the ground. Much of the spongy sphagnum moss turns a deep maroon. The intensity of pitcher plants’ greens and reds is noticeable, and the ground is often covered with ripe red cranberries and glistening sundew. There really isn’t a more colorful time of year to visit a bog! (Photo: pitcher plant, cranberry and sphagnum moss)

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Oak Leaf Galls

 

Galls are irregular plant growths which can be stimulated by the reaction between plant hormones and powerful growth regulating chemicals produced by some insects, mites, nematodes and fungi.  Galls may occur on leaves, twigs, flowers, buds or roots.  Many plants serve as gall hosts, but certain plant groups are more attractive to gall producers than others. The Oak family is by far the most popular (with 805 species of gall makers; the next largest family being the Daisy family, with less than 200 gall makers). Galls on oaks are most often caused by small wasps or midges.

Each gall-making species of insect produces a uniquely shaped and colored gall.  Thus, it is possible to identify the insect within a gall just by noting the appearance of the gall itself as well as what plant it is on.The growth of the galls takes place in the spring. Gall-making insects lay eggs on the host plant, and the insect larva resides inside the gall that the plant forms. The galls provide the insects within them with both shelter and food. Because many oak leaves persist well into the winter, there is still the opportunity to find galls, though some may be lacking residents at this stage, as many insects emerge as adults in the fall after pupating within the galls.

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Spruce Grouse Foraging

While Ruffed Grouse are plentiful throughout most of New England, one has to go to northern Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine to see its cousin, the Spruce Grouse.  Associated with boreal forests, this largely herbivorous bird feeds primarily on the needles of pine, spruce and fir (a small amount of animal matter is consumed in the summer as well as ground vegetation). Especially in the winter, a large volume of conifer browse is consumed in order to meet energy demands.

The grouse holds the needle between the tips of its mandibles and breaks it off by flicking its head.  This action, and the fact that Spruce Grouse feed exclusively on needles in the winter, leads to the wearing off of the tip of the bird’s upper mandible by spring.

If you are searching for a Spruce Grouse, you might want to concentrate in the middle of the crowns of trees, as this is where the birds tend to forage. Theories for this preference include the fact that needles in this location have higher nutritive value, branches provide sturdy support, and grouse can see approaching avian predators while remaining partially concealed. (Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology). (Photo: male Spruce Grouse browsing on Tamarack needles and (inset) looking for grit on the ground.)

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Fairy Rings

Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you may come upon a circle of mushrooms in the woods or in a lawn.  To some, these are Fairy Rings, where the fairies dance.  To those more scientifically minded, they are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus (mycelium) that is growing outward in all directions from an initial spot (in the center of the ring), feeding on nutrients in the soil.  As it grows, the mycelieum secretes enzymes into the ground ahead of it. These chemicals break down the organic matter, releasing nutrients so that the mycelium will have food when it reaches this area. When conditions are right for spore production, the active mycelium produces a circle of mushrooms just behind its outer edge.  Growth of the mycelium continues, accompanied by the formation of wider and wider circles of fruiting bodies every year.

There are roughly 60 species of fungi that produce Fairy Rings.  As a rule they form these in evenly composed soil, such as lawns and less frequently in woods.  It’s possible to recognize Fairy Ring evens when they haven’t sent up mushrooms, as they form rings of grass up to 15 feet in diameter that have a distinctly different color or texture than the grass inside or outside of the ring. (A Fairy Ring in France measured 2,000 feet in diameter and was estimated to be 700 years old.)  (Photos by Julie George)

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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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Promethea Moth Cocoons

11-28-18 promethea moth cocoon_U1A2802

At this time of year, most deciduous trees have lost their leaves. Bare branches make looking for cocoons and finding them much easier. A single leaf dangling from an otherwise barren branch of a tree might very well turn out to be the winter domicile of a Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea) pupa.

These giant silk moths construct their protective two-inch-long silken cocoons while still in their larval/caterpillar stage.  First silk is spun around the stem of the leaf (petiole) as well as where the petiole attaches to the branch, in order to reinforce the attachment of the leaf to the tree.  The cocoon is then spun, with the leaf serving as its outer covering. The result is a perfectly disguised shelter that looks like a dead leaf hanging from a branch.

The caterpillar pupates after completing the cocoon.  After spending the winter in the pupal stage, the adult moth will emerge in early summer through a valve-like opening at the upper end of the cocoon.

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Bothersome Ads

E- Greta & snow dog -iphone image of snow and real GretaIMG_5270 (003)

I apologize for no post today.  Central Vermont had a wet and heavy snow storm and the  power went out for two days. I just got it back – regular posts will resume Friday.

It has been brought to my attention that WordPress has added advertisements to my posts for the past several weeks (without my knowledge).  This is something a blog writer and their readers must tolerate if one chooses to have the type of WordPress blog that I have. (I am currently looking into different options.) I have no idea what ads are put on my blog, nor do I receive any compensation for having them there.  I am sorry you have to put up with them, and I thank you very much for tolerating them. Hopefully I will find an alternative way to bring you Naturally Curious posts minus ads! (Photo:  how I amused myself with during the storm.)


An Owl’s Digestion Process

11-26-18 -barred owl coughing up pellet2 _U1A1839Most owls do not bother to tear small prey such as mice and voles apart but instead swallow them whole.  After eight to sixteen hours, all the nutrients available in the eaten prey have been absorbed by the bird.  Owls cannot digest the fur, feathers, bones, teeth and nails of their prey, so these parts remain in the bird’s gizzard (specialized organ that grinds up food in most birds but serves as a filter for holding indigestible parts in birds of prey).  This accumulation of indigestible parts takes on its pellet form (which is the shape of the gizzard) about eight hours after ingestion, but is sometimes retained by the owl for another six hours or so before being coughed up. As a rule, bones are on the inside of the pellet, and the fur and feathers form a soft coating on the outside.

The stored pellet partially blocks the entrance to the digestive system so it must be ejected before the owl can eat again.  This process takes anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.  The owl appears to “yawn” several times before regurgitating the pellet.  Note that the pictured Barred Owl has prey (a Deer or White-footed Mouse) in its talons, but out of necessity is getting rid of a pellet before devouring it.

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Winter Finch Forecast: Finch Irruption This Winter

11-23-18 common redpoll IMG_3634Things are looking up for those of us who look forward to winters when boreal finches come south in relatively large numbers in search of food.  This is an irruption year for winter finches in the East due to the poor cone and birch seed production in northern Ontario and Quebec.  Seed-eating birds such as finches, grosbeaks, redpolls and siskins will be frequenting our feeders.

Even at this early date, Evening Grosbeak sightings are up noticeably.  Pine Grosbeaks will be taking advantage of good Mountain-ash berry and cone production in New England.  Purple Finch numbers should also be healthy this winter. While Red Crossbills sightings may be scarce, White-winged Crossbills sightings may well be up due to the poor cone crops in the eastern boreal forest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls should be numerous this winter due to poor crops of birch, alder and conifer seeds further north.

In addition to these finches, large numbers of Blue Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings are predicted due to poor nut, conifer seed and berry crops, respectively, further north. (Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, 2018-2019, http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm )  (Photo: Common Redpoll)

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Image

Happy Thanksgiving!

11-22-18-hen & 3 toms IMG_7362


Fire-colored Beetle Larvae

11-19-18 fire-colored beetle _U1A1193 (1)

Peek under the loose bark of rotting logs, both deciduous and coniferous, and you’re bound to find the larva of a beetle known as a Fire-colored Beetle (family Pyrochroidae).  Its common name is derived from the Greek word pyros (“fire”) + chroma (“’color”), a reference to the bright color, often red, of the adults of some species.   From one to several years are spent in the larval stage. Adults of the Pyrochroinae emerge from late spring to midsummer and are primarily nocturnal.

Many adult Fire-colored Beetles are attracted to cantharidin, a toxic compound produced by Blister Beetles.  Males locate a Blister Beetle, climb onto it and lick off the cantharidin that Blister Beetles exude and use the blistering agent to impress a female of their own species. When mating takes place, most of the cantharidin is transferred to the female in the form of a sperm packet.  The eggs the female subsequently lays are coated with cantharidin to protect them from being eaten before they hatch. (Bugguide.net)

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