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

November

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

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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

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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!

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Fire-colored Beetle Larvae

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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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Eastern Gray Squirrel Diet Preferences

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The diet of Eastern Gray Squirrels is extremely varied. Depending on the season, buds, fruit (such as the pictured crabapples being consumed), maple and oak flowers, berries, seeds, fungi, the inner bark of maple and elm, insects, and young birds are eaten. However, nuts are by far the main component, which is reflected in their distribution; the range of Gray Squirrels coincides strikingly with that of oak and hickory forests. Especially during the colder part of the year, nuts, acorns and maple seeds, or samaras, that they have stored for winter consumption are the mainstay of their diet. (Research shows that Gray Squirrels recover 85% of the nuts they store.)

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Evergreen Orchid Leaves Brighten The Forest Floor

11-14-18 rattlesnake plantain_U1A0849Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is a perennial evergreen orchid found growing in deciduous and coniferous forests, often in dry, sandy soil.  While its hairy (downy) stalk of delicate, white, late-summer flowers is eye-catching (see 8/20/13 NC post), the leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain are also works of art. Rosettes of bluish-green leaves emerge at the end of horizonal rhizomes, or stems, that are usually covered lightly by leaf litter.

The common name “plantain” has been applied to diverse, unrelated plants that have broad, flat leaves, the word being derived from the Latin word planta, referring to the sole of the foot. “Rattlesnake” alludes to the resemblance of this plant’s prominent reticulated veins to the scaly skin of snakes.

As is typical of orchids, the roots of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain have a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi that assists the plant in the acquisition of moisture and nutrients, while the plant provides products of its photosynthesis to feed the fungus. Also typical of orchids, the seeds of this species are minute and dust-like, bearing few nutrients to assist in the establishment of new seedlings. Seedling establishment requires assistance from soil fungi, from which the orchid derives the organic molecules it needs until it can make its own food via photosynthesis in its leaves.

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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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Red Squirrels Caching Food For Winter

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Both carnivores and herbivores cache, or store, food for later consumption. Black-capped Chickadees tuck seeds into bark crevices. Bobcats may cover their kills with leaves, grass, snow and even hair from their prey’s carcass. Grey Squirrels bury their nuts individually, while Red Squirrels often hide green cones in a pile of cone scales (middens) that accumulate at the site where the squirrels have previously eaten seeds, keeping the young cones moist so that they will retain the seeds within them.

Red Squirrels sometimes go one step further than most animals that cache food — they frequently preserve their food by drying it before storing it.  You’ll recognize this when you see it – an apple or mushroom stuck in the crotch of two branches. Sometimes the dried food is collected and cached near their winter quarters, but often it remains lodged in tree branches until eaten.  The pictured mushroom, which was hung out to dry, was reduced almost to mush by the torrential rains we’ve had lately. Eventually it will dry out and remain edible into the winter.

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Next Year’s Buds Already Formed

11-7-18 A. beech bud _U1A1228Because tree buds tend to swell and increase greatly in size in the spring, this is often the season when we first notice them and assume that this is when they are produced.  However, if you look in the axils of leaves on any deciduous tree right now, you will see full-size buds that were formed this summer.   These little packages of miniature leaves, branches and sometimes flowers, will remain on trees all winter, tightly closed and often protected from the elements by modified leaves called bud scales.  Come spring, when trees are once again taking up quantities of water, their buds will swell, scales will fall off (leaving bud scale scars), and tiny, pristine leaves or flowers will appear.  (Photo is of American beech, Fagus grandifolia, bud.)

Just a quick reminder that the NC Calendar ordering deadline is November 10th.

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Fermenting Apples & Black Bears ≠ Inebriation

11-5-18 bear scat MH_20091011_233455_4If you investigate the contents of Black Bear scat this time of year, you may well find nothing but chunks of digested and semi-digested apple (pictured).  For several weeks before hibernation begins bears spend their days and nights foraging for food that will sustain them through the coming months (“hyperphagia”).  Fermenting apples lying on the ground are accessible and very popular with bears; hence, many scats contain them.

There have been anecdotal reports over the years of Black Bears stumbling around as if inebriated, and it is often assumed that this behavior is the result of their having consumed fermenting fruit, such as apples.  Waxwings, robins and other species of birds are known to get drunk (and even die) from fermented crab apples, mountain ash and blackberries, but it’s highly unlikely that bears follow suit.

For one thing, the pH of a bear’s stomach is around 3.5 – slightly more acidic than yeast can tolerate. In addition, the time it takes for a Black Bear to digest food is typically far less time than yeast would need to convert sugar into alcohol. Lastly, size would play a large role in an animal’s ability to become intoxicated. It would take hundreds of apples consumed at their peak level of fermentation to make even a small, young Black Bear even slightly tipsy.

If you see a Black Bear stumbling and acting strange it may well be because it is sleepy or perhaps sick, but probably not drunk. However, until researchers test the blood alcohol level of a bear that’s exhibited this behavior, no–one can say for sure what caused it.

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