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

October

Some Spiders Still Active

10-29-18 march fly and spider_U1A1162Spiders are ectotherms – warmed and cooled by their environment. In the fall, those outdoor species that remain alive through the winter begin preparing themselves by producing antifreeze proteins that allow their tissues to experience below-freezing temperatures. When a small particle of ice first starts to form, the antifreeze proteins bind to it and prevent the water around it from freezing, thus preventing the growth of an ice crystal. Some species survive in temperatures as low as -5 degrees Celsius.

The pictured hammock spider, still active in late October, is nourishing itself by drinking the dissolved innards of a fall-flying March fly, whose name comes from the predominantly springtime flight period of most March Flies (of the 32 species in the genus Bibio in North America, only three fly in fall).

A common belief is that once cold weather appears, outdoor spiders seek shelter inside houses.  In fact, only about 5% of the spiders you find in your house lived outside before coming into your house, according to Seattle’s Burk Museum.  The reason people tend to notice them more inside may be because sexually mature male spiders become more active in the fall, wandering far and wide in search of mates.

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Eastern Red-backed Salamanders Still Active

10-23-18 eastern red-backed salamander_U1A0906The Eastern Red-backed Salamander is the most abundant terrestrial vertebrate in New England.  Unlike many salamanders, it is terrestrial year-round – living, mating, laying eggs, feeding, and hibernating.

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders can occur in two color phases, lead-back and red-back. The lead-back phase salamanders are a consistent gray to black color while the red-back phase is characterized by an orange to red stripe down the length of their body and tail. In both phases, they are distinguishable by their mottled white and black undersides and five toes on their hind feet.

Due to its lack of lungs, this slender salamander must live in damp or moist habitats in order to breath. It is active into late fall, inhabiting rotting logs or living under moist leaf litter, bark, stones, etc. When cold weather really sets in, it will hibernate down to 15 inches in the soil, or in deep leaf litter or rock crevices. (Congratulations to Helen L., the first NC reader to correctly identify the latest Mystery Photo as an Eastern Red-backed Salamander!)

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Reminder: Naturally Curious Calendar Orders Can Be Placed Until Nov. 10

AUGUST black bears 20160828_1568flattened SHEET of monthly imagesThere are roughly two more weeks left in which orders for 2019 NC Calendars can be placed. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11” x 17” when hanging. There is one full-page and one thumbnail photograph (new this year) per month. The calendars are $35.00 each (includes postage). Please specify the number of calendars you would like to order, the mailing address to which they should be sent and your email address (so I can easily and quickly contact you if I have any questions). Your check can be made out to Mary Holland and sent to me at 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089.

Guaranteed orders can be placed up until November 10th. Orders placed after this date will be filled as long as my supply of extra calendars lasts. (To be candid, I have had so many last-minute requests in past years that I have not been able to fill all of the orders placed after November 10th, so if you want to be sure of having your order filled, I encourage you to place your order before that date.)  Calendars will arrive at your door by mid-December. Thank you so much!

Monthly subjects: January – Snowy Owl; February – Otter Slides; March – Spotted Salamander; April – Spring Peeper; May – White-tailed Deer Fawn; June – Gray Fox kit; July – Red-bellied Woodpeckers; August – Chicken of the Woods; September – Monarch; October – Moose; November – Ruffed Grouse; December – Black Bear mother & yearlings.

 

 


Mystery Photo

10-21-18 mystery photo_U1A0883Any idea what lurks under the bark of this rotting log (look through hole)? If so, go to the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com ) and enter your “comment.”

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Snapping Turtles Entering Hibernation

10-22-18 snapper IMG_5801Most Snapping Turtles have entered hibernation by late October. To hibernate, they burrow into the debris or mud bottom of ponds or lakes, settle beneath logs, or retreat into muskrat burrows or lodges.  Once a pond is frozen over, how do they breathe with ice preventing them from coming up for air?

Because turtles are ectotherms, or cold-blooded, their body temperature is the same as their surroundings.  The water at the bottom of a pond is usually only a few degrees above freezing.  Fortunately, a cold turtle in cold water/mud has a slow metabolism.  The colder it gets, the slower its metabolism, which means there is less and less of a demand for energy and oxygen as temperatures fall – but there is still some.

When hibernating, Snapping Turtles rely on stored energy.  They acquire oxygen from pond water moving across the surface of their body, which is highly vascularized.  Blood vessels are particularly concentrated near the turtle’s tail, allowing the Snapper to obtain the necessary amount of oxygen to stay alive without using its lungs.

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Giant Puffballs Maturing

10-17-18 giant puffball IMG_4353Puffballs are aptly named.  When their spores mature and the fruiting body splits open, rain drops, an animal passing by, or the wind cause puffs of spores to burst into the air,  dispersing them far and wide.  While puffballs vary tremendously in size, most would fit in your hand.  Exceptions include Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), one of which was collected in 1877 in New York state and measured 5 ½ inches by 4 ½ inches by 6 ¾  feet. The greatest recorded weight for a Giant Puffball is 44 pounds.

The production of spores takes place on basidia – club-like structures inside the fruiting body. The number of spores that these fungi produce is impressive. Mycologist Henry Buller estimated that a Giant Puffball measuring 16” x 11” x 8” (a fairly typical size) would contain more than 7 trillion spores.  (If you want to grow your own Giant Puffball so you can count the spores yourself, you can even purchase seeding spores online!)

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Young Milk Snakes Soon To Hibernate

10-17-18 milk snake young _U1A0781The eggs that Milk Snakes laid last June or July hatched recently and the six-inch young snakes as well as the adults that produced them will only be evident (and then, mostly at night) for the next few weeks.  Hibernation is around the corner, and these snakes often seek out the cellars of old houses with stone foundations in which to spend the winter.  Should you come upon a Milk Snake, please spare its life. They are not poisonous, and you couldn’t ask for a more efficient mouse catcher (Mice accounted for 74 percent of a study of Milk Snakes’ stomach contents.).

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Ospreys Migrating

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Banding birds, and the retrieval of these bands, has provided valuable information on the movement of birds. Today we also have the benefit of satellite telemetry, in which a bird carries a tracking device and its location is calculated via satellites that orbit the Earth.  The following is just a sample of what this tracking technology has revealed about the migration of Ospreys.

There are significant differences in male and female timing of migration (females leave up to a month before males), distance traveled and overwintering locations.  There is strong fidelity to overwintering sites as well as to migration flyways.  Breeding pairs of Osprey do not migrate or overwinter together, and adults do not migrate with their offspring.  Ospreys rarely migrate at night over land but inevitably migrate at night when undertaking longer (more than 12 hours) water crossings.

Subtle insights into migratory behavior can be gained by the findings of satellite telemetry, as well.  Their first flight south by juvenile Ospreys is often largely over water. A majority of juveniles migrating over the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to the Bahama Islands flew as many as 1,500 miles over a period of up to 58 hours. The fact that no adults or 2nd year birds took this route over water suggests that juvenile Ospreys learn the coastal migration route during their first trip north.

Overwintering habitat preferences have also been assessed.  Of 79 Ospreys tracked by satellite, 30.4% overwintered on coasts, 50.6% overwintered on rivers, and 19% overwintered on lakes or reservoirs, with differences based on both sex and region of origin.

These few facts don’t begin to exhaust the information gathered from banding and satellite telemetry on Ospreys, much less many other species. They just serve to illustrate how modern tracking technology compliments and increases the information formerly gathered by firsthand observation and banding.

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Yews Fruiting

10-5-18 yew_U1A0321Unlike many other conifers, Yew does not actually bear its seeds in a cone. Botanically speaking, a modified scale wraps around a single seed and forms a fleshy, red fruit called an aril. Both the seed coat as well as the foliage of Yew contain toxic alkaloids.  Birds’ digestive systems do not break down the seed coats on the seeds so they are unharmed by eating the berries, seed and all, but the human digestive tract begins to break down the seeds and toxins are released.

For hundreds of years, people used Yew alkaloids as both a method of suicide and a chemical weapon during hunting and warfare. Even sleeping beneath the shade of a Yew bush was once considered dangerous. Today paclitaxel, a plant alkaloid derived from Yews, is used as an anti-cancer chemotherapy drug (Taxol is one of its brand names).

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Woolly Bears Seeking Hibernacula

10-10-18 isabella tiger moth 119

The Isabella Tiger Moth typically has two broods during the summer.  The caterpillars (Woolly Bears) in the first brood pupate and emerge as adult moths mid-summer.  The second brood overwinters as caterpillars and pupate in the spring.  The Woolly Bears we see crossing roads at this time of year are second-brood caterpillars in search of protective hibernation sites (hibernacula).

Old-timers predicted the severity of the coming winter by the relative lengths of the black and brown bands of the caterpillars when they became easy to observe in the fall – the longer the black sections and narrower the brown section, the harder a winter they were in for.  In fact, this may have had some validity, as brown hairs (setae) are added to the middle band every time the caterpillar molts. Therefore, the older the caterpillar, the wider the brown band.  If winter comes early, the caterpillar’s brown band would be relatively narrow due to the fact it didn’t have time to mature fully and develop a wider brown section before hibernating.

The adult stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth is often overlooked, due to the appeal of the larval stage.  This tan moth, with a wingspan of 1 ½ – 2 inches, has tiny black markings on its wings.  Male and female are sexually dimorphic and can be distinguished by the color of their hind wings.  Males have yellow-pale orange hind wings while the hind wings of females are rosy. (Photo:  Woolly Bear; photo inset: female Isabella Tiger Moth)

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How Does Weather Affect Foliage ?

10-8-18 fall foliage2 _U1A0617Peak foliage has arrived in northern New England and will soon be evident further south.  It’s fairly common knowledge that there are three main pigments that affect fall leaf colors:  chlorophyll (green),  carotenoids (yellow) and anthocyanins (red). Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in leaves throughout the growing season. Most anthocyanins are produced in the autumn, in response to bright light and excess plant sugars within leaf cells.

The amount and brilliance of the colors that develop in any particular autumn season are related to weather conditions that occur before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is dwindling. Temperature and moisture are the main influences.

A succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp but not freezing nights seems to bring about the most spectacular color displays. During these days, lots of sugars are produced in the leaf but the cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. These conditions – lots of sugar and light – spur production of the brilliant anthocyanin pigments, which produce reds, purples, and crimson. Because carotenoids are always present in leaves, the yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant from year to year.

The amount of moisture in the soil also affects autumn colors. Like the weather, soil moisture varies greatly from year to year. The countless combinations of these two highly variable factors assure that no two autumns can be exactly alike. A late spring or a severe summer drought can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks. A warm period during fall will also lower the intensity of autumn colors. A warm wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights should produce the most brilliant autumn colors. (U.S. Forest Service, USDA)

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Stinkhorns Maturing

10-5-18 dog stinkhorn IMG_9973There are a group of fungi known as stinkhorns — aptly named, as their foul odor can be detected even by the human nose. All stinkhorns first appear as an “egg” which can be up to two inches high. When the eggs rupture, the appearance of the different species of fungi in this family (Phallaceae) can differ dramatically, but many have a phallic-like shape. At maturity, all stinkhorns produce an olive-green to olive-brown slimy substance that has a putrid smell (to humans), but is very appealing to many insects.  This slime is loaded with the fungi’s spores. Insects landing on a stinkhorn get their feet covered with the spore-laden slime while they are busy ingesting it.  Once the insects depart, the spores are dispersed far and wide.

Stinkhorns appear suddenly, and their growth can almost be observed, as they go from the egg stage to maturity with impressive speed. While these fungi are not poisonous, it is doubtful that having smelled them, anyone would desire to eat them.  (Photo:  Dog Stinkhorn aka Devil’s Dipstick, Mutinus caninus)

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Trailing Arbutus Flowering!

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One of the first wildflowers to burst upon the scene in April is Trailing Arbutus, Epigaea repens – a true harbinger of spring. This plant is also referred to as Mayflower and Plymouth Mayflower, as it was a welcome sight to the Pilgrims after their first winter.

It is a first for me to find this plant in flower at this time of year; I have never even heard of this occurring. The flowers are often well hidden beneath leathery, evergreen leaves, so can survive the cold temperatures in April and May, but they face much greater challenges flowering in late October. Most of their main pollinators (bumblebees) die with the first hard frost, which most of northern New England has experienced. And even if, by some stroke of luck, a lingering bumblebee did land on and pollinate a blossom, it’s very doubtful that even with our warming climate, there would be time for fruit to form and mature.  Certainly the energy used to produce fall flowers is an expense the plant can ill afford in its efforts to reproduce.   (Photo taken 10-28-17 in Hartland, VT)


Yellow Jackets On A Bender

10-27-17 yellow jackets 049A6627

At this time of year, yellow jackets, hornets and wasps take advantage of the plethora of fermented fruit that lies underneath fruit trees. Because the queen slows down the production of eggs in the fall, workers have time on their hands, as they have fewer larvae to collect food (chewed-up insects) for. Their life (but not the queen’s) is about to come to an end, and they go out in style. If you have observed these members of the Vespidae family acting more erratic, it may well be because they are drunk on hard cider. (Photo:  yellow jackets binging)


Broad-shouldered Water Striders Still Active

10-25-17 broad-shouldered water striders 049A6909

If you see what look like miniature water striders skating on the surface of a stream or pond, you may have come upon an aggregation of Broad-shouldered Water Striders, a different family of water striders from the ones we commonly see. They are tiny (2-6 mm) and very fast-moving, zipping here and there with the speed of a bullet, staying on top of the surface film, or surface tension, that is created by the attraction of water molecules. Adaptations to this mode of travel include non-wettable hairs at the ends of their legs that don’t disrupt the surface tension, and claws that are located a short distance up the outermost section of their legs rather than at the end of their legs, so as not to break this film.

Broad-shouldered Water Striders are often found in the more protected areas of a stream, where they tend to congregate in large numbers. Members of a common genus, Rhagovelia, are known as “riffle bugs” and are often found below rocks that are in the current. Broad-shouldered Water Striders locate their prey (water fleas, mosquito eggs and larvae, etc.) by detecting surface waves with vibration sensors in their legs. There can be up to six generations a summer (photo shows that they are still mating at the end of October). Broad-shouldered Water Striders spend the winter hibernating as adults, gathering in debris at the edge of the water or beneath undercut banks.

 

 


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.


Western Conifer Seed Bugs Seeking Winter Shelter

western conifer seed bug 049A6232Every year I receive questions about this unusual-looking insect which is often found on and in houses in the fall. As a result, I publish a post about it every couple of years.  For those of you with good memories, please excuse the repetition.

Roughly 30 years ago Western Conifer Seed Bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) started moving east. They are now well established coast to coast. Here in the East they seek shelter during the winter, often choosing to share our domiciles with us. Fear not – though they look fairly menacing, they will do you no harm. Western Conifer Seed Bugs do not bite or sting, and in their semi-dormant condition they do not feed or breed. If you choose not to co-habit with these bugs, be forewarned. When disturbed, they can emit a noxious smell.

In the spring they will vacate your house and feed on the sap of the young cones and flowers of conifers, including Eastern White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine, White Spruce and Eastern Hemlock. Mating takes place, eggs are laid and the young nymphs feed on conifer seeds which they find by detecting the infrared radiation that the cones emit.

These bugs are also called “leaf-footed bugs,” and if you look at their hind legs you will see that a section, the tibia, is flattened. Some species display this specialized leg structure during courtship, and others may use it for defense purposes.


Pectination Growth Started

10-12-17 pectinations 049A5827Every fall Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) grow skin-like fringes called pectinations on either side of each toe. They serve as snowshoes, helping grouse stay on top of the snow when walking, as well as cling to icy branches while eating the buds of poplars and other trees in the winter. In the spring grouse shed these adaptive fringes.

Ornithological texts describe these growths as appearing in the fall, but usually do not specify exactly when they develop.  A recent look at a road-killed grouse’s foot (photo) showed that pectinations have begun to develop, but have not completed their growth. The pectinations shown here will double their length by the time snow flies.

 

 


Hackberry Nipple Galls

10-13-17 hackberry nipple gall 049A5957If you look on the underside of the leaves of a Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) tree at this time of year, you often find light-colored, raised bumps, commonly referred to as Hackberry Nipples Galls. The creatures responsible for these growths (through chemical interactions with the leaves) are a group of small insects called jumping lice, or psyllids, which resemble miniature (1/6 “ long) cicadas, with their large eyes and wings held roof-like over their backs.

Adult Hackberry psyllids emerge in September and October from the galls they have formed and seek shelter for the winter, often in the cracks and crevices of tree bark. Because they are attracted to lights and can often fit through the mesh of window screens, these insects also seek shelter in houses. Although considered a nuisance by some, Hackberry psyllids do not sting, nor do they carry disease. They pass the winter as adults and when they break dormancy in the spring, the psyllids exit houses, tree bark fissures, etc. and lay eggs on the emerging leaves of Hackberry trees. After the eggs hatch, the young psyllids start feeding, stimulating abnormal growth in the leaves, forming small pockets, or galls, surrounding the insects. The psyllids spend the rest of the summer sucking on tree sap safely within the protective galls before exiting in the fall. As a rule, these insects do not cause serious damage to their Hackberry tree hosts.


Grasshopper Eggs Incubating

Grasshopper egg pods.

Most grasshoppers mate in the fall, lay eggs and die. Their eggs are deposited in the soil, in a cluster held together by a frothy secretion that, when dry, forms a rigid covering. The eggs and secretion are known as an egg pod.

The egg pods of grasshoppers vary not only in the number of eggs they contain but also in their size, shape, and structure. A pod can contain from 4 to more than 100 eggs, depending on the species of grasshopper. Grasshopper eggs vary in size, color, and shell sculpturing. Depending on the species eggs range from 1/10th to ½ an inch long and may be white, yellow, olive, tan, brownish red, or dark brown.

Most grasshoppers have laid their eggs by now, and the lingering warmth of the soil is already incubating them. They will soon enter diapause (the suspended development of an insect/insect embryo that occurs during winter in New England) and will resume their development come spring.  (Photo: Grasshopper egg pod & eggs, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences)

 


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.


Spider Web-filled Fields

10-11-17 spider webs 049A5930While perhaps not as impressive as the square miles of fields and trees that have been totally covered in spider webs in New Zealand, Pakistan, Tasmania and Southern Australia over the past year or two,  New England does have its share of fields adorned with spider silk. The silk in foreign lands was the result of spiders ballooning (floating aloft on gossamer they spin that is lifted by the wind) in spring – an effective means of dispersal. The silk we see highlighted in fields in the early morning dew of autumn in New England serves as webs, or traps, for unsuspecting insects. A majority of these webs are made by grass spiders, many of which weave a horizontal sheet of silk that have a funnel often on one side leading down to a spider hide-a-way. When vibrations alert the spider to a potential meal that is caught in its web, it rushes out, injects the insect with digestive enzymes, and drags it back into its retreat where it begins to feed.


Naturally Curious’s Fall/Winter Schedule

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Northern New England is quieting down. Many birds are migrating; turtles, frogs, toads and snakes are soon to seek their winter hibernacula; insects have laid eggs or are overwintering in sheltered spots. Naturally Curious is also making a seasonal change. From now until the end of March there will be three posts a week – on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Come spring, a five-days/week schedule will resume.

 


Fishing Methods Of Birds With Spear-shaped Bills

10-10-17 great blue heron with fish 049A5631How do herons, egrets, bitterns, kingfishers, loons and other fish-eating birds with spear-shaped bills capture their prey? Do they use their bill as a spear and pierce through a fish, or do they grab the fish between their mandibles? You often read about one of these birds “spearing” a fish. However, a majority of these birds, most of the time, do not spear fish, but open and shut their bills fast enough to capture a fish in them — the spear shape of their bill lends itself to the tong-like action it performs. In addition, its shape enhances the movement of the bill through the water as the bird dives (its head or body) into the water to grasp the fish between its upper and lower mandibles.

One exception to this rule is the Anhinga, which does run its bill (which is equipped with backward grooves to prevent slippage) through fish in order to capture them. After spearing a fish, an Anhinga then shakes it vigorously off its bill, tosses it in the air, and catches and swallows it headfirst. (Photo: Great Blue Heron)