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

October

Why Do Snakes Bask?

Snakes, like other reptiles, are cold-blooded – they are unable to internally regulate their body temperature. On cool days If their body temperature is low, they are sluggish. They don’t move quickly, don’t hunt effectively and if they have food in their stomachs, digestion comes to nearly a standstill.

They avoid this situation by basking when cool weather sets in.  They lay in the sunshine and/or on rocks or substrate that is heated by the sun, and warm up. When they get to an optimal temperature, they can be active, hunt and digest the food they eat.  During these shorter, cooler fall days, before snakes enter hibernation, a great deal of time is spent basking.

There is an advantage to using sunlight to control body temperature. Warm-blooded animals must eat a large amount of food fairly continuously because it is the digestion of the food that regulates their body temperature and produces heat, which they must maintain in order to survive. Cold-blooded animals don’t have this restriction since their body temperature is controlled externally. This is why a snake can go for a relatively long period of time (months, depending on species) without eating after it has consumed food.  (Photo:  Common Gartersnake peering out from under leaves after its basking was disturbed)

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Purple Finches Irrupting

Every year a Winter Finch Forecast (https://finchnetwork.org/winter-finch-forecast-2022-2023 ) is published which predicts which finches in the northern boreal forests might be extending their range south due to a poor food supply farther north. These larger-than-normal movements of birds are referred to as irruptions, and they happen every year, to varying degrees with varying species. 

This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that Purple Finches would irrupt southward, following the large spruce budworm outbreak (producing short-term population increases) and poor mast crop in much of the eastern boreal forest.  The past few days have proven the forecast right and signaled the start to a large-scale irruption event. Once Black Bears have gone into hibernation and your feeders are up, keep an eye out for ever-increasing numbers of Purple Finches (as well as irrupting Evening Grosbeaks).

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Bumble Bee Mouth Parts

Most bumble bees, except for the young queens, have only a few weeks left to live, but until a killing frost arrives, they will be gathering pollen and nectar for themselves and their colony.  The various mouth parts that enable them to collect food are hidden behind the large lip that you see when you face a bumble bee head on. 

Behind this lip, there are multiple structures that are adapted to grasp, shape and collect food. These include jaws, or mandibles, which clasp pollen and wax used to form cells for eggs. Under the mandibles are two long sheaths that also grasp and shape food called maxillae.  Two labial palps located under the maxillae serve as taste sensors. Both of these structures, the maxillae and palps, form a horny sheath which protects the bee’s tongue.

Nectar is accessed with a proboscis which is basically a tube that is protected by the mandible, maxillae and labial palps.  A tongue-like structure called a glossa protrudes from the proboscis. Its hairy tip is well suited for collecting nectar.

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Wild Clematis Fruiting

Wild Clematis (Clematis virginiana), also known as Virgin’s Bower and Old Man’s Beard, is one of our native vines.  It is a member of the buttercup family and bears clusters of white to green flowers that mature into fluffy seedheads. Ellen Rathbone in the Adirondack Almanack delightfully refers to these seed clusters as “Truffula Trees” — if you’ve ever rad The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, you can appreciate how apt this comparison is. 

Wild Clematis contains glycosides and is toxic, so shouldn’t be consumed, but it is a very dramatic sight to come across when the seeds are mature and have yet to be dispersed.

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Beavers Repairing and Reinforcing Lodges and Dams

Late October and early November is the busiest time of year for beavers. Their entire winter’s food supply must be cut, gathered, transported and piled next to their lodge so that they will have access to it under the ice.  Mud, sticks, wads of grass and stones are collected to reinforce the lodge’s thick walls against the cold as well as coyotes and other predators.  And dams, the structures which create ponds, must be patched and strengthened to withstand the rigors of winter. 

The importance of maintaining a dam in good condition cannot be overstated, for without it, the pond would cease to exist, and no pond means no beavers.  As Dietland Muller-Schwarze and Lixing Sun state in the Beaver, a beaver pond is a “highway, canal, escape route, hiding place, vegetable garden, food storage facility, refrigerator/freezer, water storage tank, bathtub, swimming pool and water toilet.”  (They defecate only in water.)

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Galium Sphinx Moth Larvae Pupating

Some of the largest moths in the world belong to the hawk, or sphinx, moth family. As larvae, most hawk moths have a “horn” at the end of their body. One of the most familiar hawk moth caterpillars is the Tobacco Hornworm, found on tomato plants. Most species produce several generations a summer, pupating underground and emerging after two or three weeks. One exception is the Galium Sphinx Moth (Hyles gallii) pictured, which usually has only one generation a year. In the fall the larvae, or caterpillars, work their way underground where they overwinter as pupae inside cocoons in a shallow burrow, emerging as adult moths next spring.

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Black Bears Experiencing Hyperphagia

At the risk of boring NC readers who have been subscribers for six or more years, I am reposting both a photograph and narrative from a 2016 post that remains one of the most memorable animal signs I have ever come upon.

Black Bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  As the days cool, and the time for hibernation approaches, Black Bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight up to 100% in some extreme cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories. Occasionally their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, and all that they’ve eaten comes back up.  Pictured is the aftermath of a Black Bear’s orgy in a cornfield.

If you share a Black Bear’s territory, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside and either delay feeding birds until bears are hibernating (late December would be safe most years) or take your feeders in at night.

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Yellow Orange Fly Agarics Fruiting

The Yellow Orange Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria var. formosa) is common in New England, especially where conifers grow.  Out West this mushroom is often a bright red color, but in the East it’s typically orange/yellow. 

When certain gilled mushrooms, including many Amanita species, first form they are encased in a membrane called a “universal veil.”  As the mushroom enlarges and matures, the veil ruptures, with remnants of it remaining on the mushroom’s cap.  Fly Agaric fungi got their name from the custom of placing little pieces of the mushroom in milk to attract flies.  The flies supposedly become inebriated and crash into walls and die.  This mushroom is somewhat poisonous (as are many Amanita species) and hallucinogenic when consumed by humans.  The toxins affect the part of the brain that is responsible for fear, turning off the fear emotion.  Vikings, who had a reputation for fierceness, are said to have ingested this mushroom prior to invading a village.

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Beavers Actively Winterizing Lodges

There are two noticeable differences in the appearance of an active beaver lodge in the fall as opposed to the summer.  One is the presence of a growing pile of freshly-cut branches adjacent to the lodge.  These branches provide resident beavers with the nutrition they will need during the winter months when herbaceous plants are neither available nor accessible.

The second change noticeable in a fall lodge is the presence of massive amounts of mud.  Branches are often placed on top of this layer of mud, so you have to observe the lodge before that happens in order to see the extent of the mud layer.  It provides protection from harsh winter winds which would significantly lower the temperature inside the lodge.  Together, a blanket of snow and a layer of mud serve as excellent insulation for beavers living in the lodge.

In the Northeast, where the temperature often dips into the single digits or lower in the winter, the interior of an active beaver lodge maintains a relatively stable 33° F. – 35° F., roughly the temperature of the water, thanks to the ingenuity of these rodent architects.

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Adult Common Loons Molting & Migrating

At this time of year, adult Common Loons are undergoing a partial molt, during which they transition from their striking black-and-white breeding plumage into their gray-and-white winter plumage. This transition typically begins with the feathers surrounding the bill.

Many adult loons have departed from their northern freshwater breeding lakes, heading for their coastal New England wintering grounds.  Juvenile loons linger, sometimes remaining on their natal or adjacent lakes until near freeze-up.  Once they arrive on their wintering grounds, they will remain there for the next two to four years before returning to their inland breeding grounds. (Photo: adult Common Loon in foliage-reflecting water)

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Newly-hatched Bumble Bees Resting At Night Before Foraging & Mating During The Day

At this time of year bumble bee larvae develop into virgin queens and males instead of the female workers that hatch during the summer.  Chances are if you take an early morning walk when fall temperatures are starting to drop, you may come across one of the male bumble bees in an immobile state resting on a goldenrod or aster flower. Having spent the night here due to cold temperatures (their flight muscles must be above 86°F in order for them to take flight and their thorax must be maintained during flight at 86-104°F), they use their wing muscles in the morning to shiver and raise their temperature until they are capable of flight.

Young queens are visible during the day, but return to the hive for shelter during the night.  Once they have mated and are fertilized they fill their honey sacs with honey and seek shelter for the winter several inches underground.  They are the only members of the hive to overwinter; all others perish in the fall. (Photo: male bumble bee resting on New England Aster early one fall morning.)

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Red-bellied Woodpeckers Eating & Caching Acorns

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a wide-ranging diet consisting of nuts, fruits, frogs, minnows, nestling birds, songbird eggs, invertebrates, sap and nectar. At this time of year, acorns are a preferred food. While woodpeckers are well known for their ability to use their bills to drill into trees in order to extract insects, their use of their bills to extract the meat of nuts is less well-known.  Often they will pluck an acorn off an oak and fly with it in their bill to a tree or post where they press it into a crevice. They then crack the shell of the acorn by hammering it with their bill, after which they extract the nutmeat.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers cache food throughout the entire year, but engage in this behavior more often during the fall.  They return to their cached food throughout the winter. When you see a Red-bellied Woodpecker carrying something in its bill this time of year, follow its flight.  If the bird happens to land, see if it tries to put the item in the crack of a tree or into a crevice.  The list of items stored by this woodpecker includes acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits, fruit pulp, kernels of corn, suet, peanut butter, whole peanuts, and even insects. (Photo: male Red-bellied Woodpecker with Red Oak acorn)

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Witch Hazel Flowering & Dispersing Seeds

Long after most bird songs have ceased, summer’s flowers have turned to seed, and leaves are starting to fall, a woodland shrub, Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, brightens the landscape with its tiny, golden blossoms.  At this exact same time, Witch Hazel flowers that were pollinated a year ago and fertilized this past spring have developed capsules that are dispersing two black seeds, shooting them up to thirty feet away from the parent plant, making audible popping sounds as they open and eject the seeds.  This dual-purpose timing of both flowering and seed dispersal is a feast for both eyes and ears every autumn for those fortunate enough to locate a shrub and time their visit perfectly.

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Gray Dogwood A Bird Magnet In The Fall

Due to its ability to reproduce clonally (asexually), Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) often occurs in thickets – you rarely see one shrub all by itself.  In the fall it is the first of several species of dogwood to have its fruit ripen; as a result Gray Dogwoods are magnets for birds, including migrants, and is visited by over 100 species.  Its red fruit stems (panicles) persist long after the fruit has been eaten and leaves have fallen, providing a noticeable splash of color well into the fall.  (Photo: Red-eyed Vireo feeding on Gray Dogwood berries)

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Cedar-Apple Rust Galls

Galls are abnormal plant growths caused by various agents including insects, mites, nematodes, fungi, bacteria and viruses.  During the summer spores of a particular fungus cause the formation of brown Cedar-Apple Rust galls (Gymnosporangium juniperivirginianae) on Eastern Red Cedar trees. Members of the fungal family Pucciniaceae are known as rusts because the color of many is orange or reddish at some point in their life cycle.

This fungus requires two hosts, Eastern Red Cedar and primarily apples or crabapples, to complete its life cycle.  The two host trees are usually located within a mile of each other. When the Cedar-Apple Rust galls on cedar trees get wet from spring rains, orange, spore-filled fingers or horns, called telia, emerge from pores in the gall. As the horns absorb water, they become jelly-like and swollen (see inset). When the jelly dries, the spores are carried by the wind to apple trees, where they cause a brownish mottling on apples, referred to as Cedar-Apple Rust, which makes apples difficult for growers to sell, even though it doesn’t affect the flavor or texture of infected apples. The rust produces spores on the underside of apple leaves in late summer, which, if they land on Eastern Red Cedar trees, cause galls to form, thereby continuing the cycle. 

Spores produced on apple trees do not infect apple trees, only cedar; spores produced on cedar trees infect only apple trees. (Photo: Brown winter form of Cedar-Apple Rust gall & (inset) orange spring form of Cedar-Apple Rust gall. Blue “fruit” on Eastern Red Cedar branch is actually a cedar cone.)

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Shaggy Manes Dissolving

Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus, is one of a group of mushrooms known as Inky Caps. Both of these common names reflect the appearance of the mushroom at different stages of its development – the cap has white, shaggy scales, and as the mushroom matures its gills liquefy into a black substance that was once used as ink.

Most Inky Caps have gills that are very thin and very close to one another, which does not allow for easy release of the spores. In addition, the elongated shape of this mushroom does not allow for the spores to get caught in air currents as in most other mushrooms. The liquefication/self-digestion process is actually a strategy to disperse spores more efficiently. The gills liquefy from the bottom up as the spores mature. Thus the cap peels up and away, and the maturing spores are always kept in the best position for catching wind currents. This continues until the entire fruiting body has turned into black ink.

NB: WordPress has not been attaching the photograph that accompanies each post that is emailed to readers. I am working on getting it fixed, but meanwhile, if this continues, you can click on the title in the emailed version and it will take you to the Naturally Curious website, where you can see the photo. So sorry for the inconvenience.

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Millipedes Migrating

We don’t often see millipedes because of their preference for secluded, moist sites where they feed on decaying vegetation and other organic matter. They are also more active at night, when the humidity is high. At this time of year, however, your chances of seeing a millipede are increased due to the fact that these invertebrates are migrating in search of overwintering sites.  Adults overwinter in nooks and crannies that provide them with some protection.  Many, like the one pictured, end up under loose bark.

Millipedes are harmless, so if you see one that accidentally found its way into your home, you can safely return it to the outdoors.

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Snakes Basking & Brumating

Being ectothermic (unable to regulate their own body temperature) snakes cannot afford to spend the winter in a spot that freezes. After basking and feeding heavily in the late fall, they seek out sheltered caves, hollow logs, and burrows where they enter a state called brumation.  Brumation is to reptiles what hibernation is to mammals – an extreme slowing down of one’s metabolism.

While similar, these two states have their differences. Hibernating mammals slow their respiration down, but they still require a fair amount of oxygen present to survive.  Snakes can handle far lower oxygen demands and fluctuations than mammals.  Also, hibernating mammals sleep the entire time during their dormancy, whereas snakes have periods of activity during brumation.  If the weather is mild, they will take advantage of the opportunity to venture out and bask.  They also need to drink during this period in order to avoid dehydration. (Photo: DeKay’s Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) basking)

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White-crowned Sparrows Migrating

White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) breed north of New England and overwinter south of New England.  The only time we get to admire their elegant plumage is during migration, primarily in May and October. 

White-crowned Sparrows are strong migrators (A migrating White-crowned Sparrow was once tracked moving 300 miles in a single night.) but they do have to stop and refuel along the way.  Because they are now passing through New England, you may see what at first might appear to be a White-throated Sparrow, but is a White-crowned Sparrow.  Their bold black-and-white striped crowns are one quick way to tell one species from another. (Immature birds have brown and gray stripes.)  Look for them foraging in weeds along the roadside or in overgrown fields.  About 93% of their diet is plant material, 74% of which is weed seeds.

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White-tailed Deer Molting

The signs of fall are plentiful – skeins of migrating geese, disappearing insects, falling leaves.  Another transformation that takes place in the fall (as well as spring) with White-tailed Deer and other mammals is the molting of a summer coat and the growing in of a winter coat.

The thinner summer coat of a White-tailed Deer consists of shorter, reddish hair.   The shorter length of the hair allows the deer’s body heat to easily escape and the light color reflects rather than retains warmth from the sun.  Come fall, deer molt the rusty red hairs of summer, and replace them with a coat consisting of longer, darker hairs. This grayish-brown hair is warmer and absorbs more of the sun’s warmth. A spring molt occurs in reverse.

The process of molting happens relatively fast and is often completed within two to three weeks.  During this period, deer can look a bit ragged (see photo), as both the red summer hairs as well as the brown winter hairs are evident. If you see a deer at this time, it’s easy to assume that such a deer has mange, but it is just the way a seasonal molt takes place. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & European Hornet Sign

Congratulations to “mariagianferrari,” who came the closest to solving the Mystery Photo when she correctly guessed that the missing bark was the result of a partnership between an insect and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  The sapsucker arrived first and pecked the vertical rows of rectangular holes in the trunk of the tree in order to obtain sap as well as the insects that the sap attracts.  (Usually these holes are not harmful, but a tree may die if the holes are extensive enough to girdle the trunk or stem.)

The second visitor whose sign is apparent between the sapsucker holes is the European, or Giant, Hornet (Vespa crabro).  This large (3/4″ – 1 ½ “) member of the vespid family was introduced to the U.S. about 200 years ago. Overwintering queens begin new colonies in the spring and the 200-400 workers of a colony then forage for insects including crickets, grasshoppers, large flies and caterpillars to feed to the larvae. 

In addition, the workers collect cellulose from tree bark and decaying wood to expand their paper nest, which is what has occurred between the sapsucker holes, effectively girdling the apple tree.  The nutritious sap that this collecting exposes is also consumed by the hornets. We don’t often witness this activity because most of it occurs at night.

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Canada Goose Migratory Formation

“V’s” of migrating Canada Geese are a common sight and sound in the Northeast during October.  The inevitable question arises:  why fly in a V formation?  In part, because it conserves energy.  But exactly how does it do this?

As the lead goose flaps, it creates tiny vortexes (circular patterns of rotating air) swirling off its wings as well as into the space behind it.  The vortex behind a goose goes downward, while the vortexes on either side of its wings go up.  If a goose flies directly behind the goose in front of it, air will be pushing it down.  If it flies off to the outer side of the goose in front of it, air is pushing upward and the goose will get a slight lift, making flying easier.

Picture two geese flying behind and to the outer sides of the lead goose.  Additional geese, in order to avoid the vortex behind the lead goose as well as the vortexes directly behind the next two geese, will fly behind and to the outside of the wings of the two birds in front of them, getting a lift and forming a “V.” 

Because the lead goose has no vortex to get a lift from, it tires more easily than the other geese. It periodically falls back and is replaced by another goose in the formation. This cooperative process of taking turns leading the flock minimizes the need for the birds to stop and rest.  

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Bur Oak: An Uncommon Source of Acorns in the East

Oaks are generally divided into two major groups:  red oaks and white oaks.  Red oaks have bristle-tipped leaves, acorns with hairy shell linings and bitter seeds that mature in two seasons.  White oaks have leaves lacking bristles on the lobes, acorns with a smooth inner surface that are sweet or slightly bitter and mature in one season. 

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). also called Mossycup Oak, is in the white oak group and is easily identified by the corky ridges on its young branches, deeply furrowed bark and acorns with knobby-scaled caps (cupules) with a fringed edge.  This member of the beech family (Fagaceae) derived its common name from the resemblance of its heavily fringed caps to the burs on a Chestnut tree, though the caps only half cover the nut.  Common in central U.S., Bur Oak is relatively uncommon in New England, occurring in in central Maine, New Hampshire, the western edges of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the Champlain Valley in Vermont.

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Northern Leopard Frogs Migrating

Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens) are often found in wet, grassy meadows where they spend the summer after breeding in a body of water.  Come fall, they typically migrate towards the shoreline of a pond, traveling up to two miles in order to do so. 

Northern Leopard Frogs cannot tolerate freezing temperatures, so as it begins cooling off in October and November, these irregularly-spotted amphibians seek protection by entering the water and spending the winter months hibernating on the bottom of the pond. They are sometimes covered with a thin layer of silt, sometimes not. Usually they clear the area either side of themselves in order to facilitate respiration. Movement, if there is any, is very slow. 

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