An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

September

Mystery Photo

I am often asked how I find the subjects that I photograph.  Sometimes I am consciously looking for specific plants and animals, but more often I’m simply looking for something that is either out of place or out of character.  In this particular instance, I noticed an American Beech sapling with leaves that were bunched up into an odd shape. If you think you know what caused this roughly 2-inch long x 1-inch wide, leaf-covered cylinder, go to the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com), scroll down to “Comments” and enter your thoughts.  The answer will be revealed Monday, Oct. 7.

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American Toads Preparing For Winter

In the Northeast, sometime in September or October you realize that you’re no longer seeing American Toads.  This is because they are taking steps that allow them to survive over the winter.  These steps consist of either finding another animal’s burrow or digging their own (up to 20 inches or so deep) in order to hibernate below the frost line.

As the photograph illustrates, toads dig their tunnels facing forward, using their hind legs to do the digging.  Special hardened knobs on their hind feet assist them in this endeavor. As they dig deeper, the tunnel in front of them collapses.  When deep enough to hopefully avoid being frozen, they stop digging and hibernate until the soil begins to warm.  Come April or May, American Toads dig their way up to the surface of the ground and head for breeding ponds. (Photo by Ashley Wolff)

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American Dagger Moth Caterpillars Roaming

American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillars are present from June to October in the Northeast, but because of their size (up to 2 ½”) and their searching for a suitable site to pupate in over the winter, they are very evident right now.

American Dagger Moth caterpillars have lemon yellow (early instars) or white (late instars) setae, or hairs.  Their distinctive characteristic is the pattern of black tufts: two pairs of diverging tufts along the middle of the caterpillar and one thick black tuft at the end. As larvae they have a wide variety of host trees, including alders, ashes, birches, elms, hickories, maples, oaks, poplars, walnuts, and willows.

After locating a wintering site, these caterpillars will spin a cocoon in which they will spend the next several months as pupae.  Late next spring American Dagger Moths will emerge from their cocoons as two-inch-long brown moths.

If touched, these caterpillars can cause a mild allergic reaction (a rash) in some people who touch the them.

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Northern Flickers Migrating

The Northern Flicker is one of the few North American woodpeckers that is strongly migratory. However,  most of the eastern migrants are Canadian breeders.  They fly south from Canada with big flights moving down the Atlantic coast in the fall to the southeastern U.S.. Peak fall migration occurs from late September to early October, with some migration continuing to early November. As a result, New England sees an increase in the number of flickers sighted at this time of year.  More southern populations are sedentary, and do not migrate. Northern Flickers that nest in New England do both.  Some remain here for the winter, while some fly further south and return next spring to their northern breeding grounds.

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Equinox vs. Solstice

Today is the autumnal equinox – night and day are of almost exactly equal length, twelve hours each. Each year there are two equinoxes and two solstices. Both signify a change of season, but they are very different phenomena.

The biggest difference between the equinox and the solstice is that an equinox is the point during the Earth’s orbit around the sun at which the sun is at its closest distance from the equator, while during a solstice, it’s at its greatest distance from the equator.

In September and March during the equinoxes, all areas of the Earth’s surface receive the same amount of sunlight. The September equinox marks the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from north to south and vice versa in March. (Equinoxes are opposite on either side of the equator, so the autumnal (fall) equinox in the Northern Hemisphere is the spring (vernal) equinox in the Southern Hemisphere and vice versa.)

Solstice occurs when the sun reaches its northern or southernmost point (in June and December) — when its path is farthest from the equator. In the Northern Hemisphere the summer solstice happens in June, and in the Southern Hemisphere, the solstice happens in December (this is why the seasons are reversed in each hemisphere). So the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year while the summer solstice is the longest day of the year.

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New Children’s Book Release

A new addition to my children’s book series on Animal Anatomy and Adaptations has just been released. Animal Eyes, Ears, Mouths, Tails, Legs and Noses are now joined by Animal Skins.  This most recent book takes a look at how fur, feathers and scales help animals survive.  (Suitable for children ages 4 – 9.)

Copies can be purchased from independent bookstores, online and from the publisher (go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on Animal Skins image on right).


Woodchucks Fattening Up

This Woodchuck is doing what Woodchucks do this time of year – eating fast and furiously, and putting on fat equaling about a third of their weight (granted, an apple has only a tiny fraction of a gram of fat, but every bit helps).  Accumulation of fat is essential if they are to survive months of hibernation.  It’s not known what stimulates this increase in appetite, but most likely photoperiod (length of day) plays a part.

Soon these rodents will seek shelter in their winter burrows, where their heart rate is reduced from 100 beats per minute to 15 and their temperature drops from 96 F. degrees to 47 F. degrees.  During hibernation, they lose roughly 20% to 47% of their body weight.  Those Woodchucks not able to accumulate sufficient fat reserves may not survive the three or four months of hibernation that take place in the Northeast. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Ambush Bug, Not Assassin Bug, In Yesterday’s Post!

Thanks to Pat Nelson’s sharp eyes, I realized I had mislabeled the bug in yesterday’s blog.  It was an Ambush Bug, not an Assassin Bug.  While both are predators and in the same family (Reduviidae), Assassin Bugs are usually dark colored and have long, narrow heads compared to Ambush Bugs.  Ambush Bugs are usually quite stout and typically have bright colors such as yellow, red or orange.  They also have thickened front pincer-like legs with teeth-like structures that hold the prey while it is being consumed.  Although small (usually less than ½ inch), an Ambush Bug’s prey may be as large as a bumblebee, wasp or butterfly.

 


Drama In The Goldenrod Patch

At this time of year when most flowers have gone by, Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a primary source of pollen and nectar for bees, beetles, butterflies, flies and many other insects. Consequently, goldenrod flowers are a popular place for insect-eating predators to linger.

Recently I spied an Ambush Bug that had captured a fly and had its proboscis inserted into it, contentedly sucking away the fly’s innards while I photographed it.  Unbeknownst to me or the Ambush Bug, another predator, a Bald-faced Hornet, had spied the bug with its prey. Although adult hornets consume liquids, usually sugars like the juice of fruits or nectar, their larvae are raised on a diet of insects, so adults are constantly looking for prey. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the hornet flew in, tussled with the Ambush Bug and flew off with the fly in its mandibles, landing on a nearby branch with the object of its thievery.

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Some White-tailed Deer Fawns Still Nursing

White-tailed Deer are ruminants.  The process of rumination (gathering a lot of food at once and then digesting it later by chewing one’s cud) is fully developed by the age of about two months, or roughly by the end of July.  Fawns can be completely weaned and survive without milk at this time, but does often don’t wean them until 3 to 4 months. It’s not unheard of to see a fawn born in May or June still nursing, or attempting to, in October. It stands to reason that it’s hard to give up this valuable source of nutrition, for deer milk is richer in fat, protein and energy than cow’s milk. (Photo taken by Erin Donahue on September 2nd.)

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Birds Molting Old Feathers And Growing In New Ones

With birds, molting refers to the loss of old, worn feathers and the growth of new ones.  A molt can involve all of the bird’s feathers (complete molt), or just some of them (such as wing or tail feathers – a partial molt). Most birds have a complete molt once a year (chickadees, hummingbirds, owls, etc.), or one complete molt and a partial molt before the breeding season (buntings, tanagers, warblers, etc.), or two complete molts per year (Bobolinks, Marsh Wrens).

Complete molts often occur in late summer and early fall, after the breeding season is over. When you think about it, the timing of this “prebasic” or “postnuptial” molt makes a great deal of sense. Growing new feathers takes an inordinate amount of energy; food is plentiful now, the demands of breeding are over and for many birds, migration isn’t quite under way. It is the perfect time to look for molted feathers on the ground.  (Photo:  molted Red-tailed Hawk tail feather)

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Monkey Slug Season

Congratulations to Rinky Black, who was the first person to accurately identify the Mystery Photo as a Monkey Slug!

Some of our dullest-looking moths started their lives out as colorful, bizarrely-shaped caterpillars.  In particular, there is a family of caterpillars (Limacodidae) known as “slug caterpillars” which come in all kinds of unusual forms and colors.  They can be naked or densely hairy, and they usually have stinging hairs. The Hag Moth (Phobetron pithecium), found throughout eastern North America, is one such moth. Whereas the adult moth is a dull brown, the caterpillar stage is anything but dull.  Known as the Monkey Slug, the caterpillar stage of this moth has three pairs of long “arms” and three additional pairs about half as long.  Its appearance has been likened to a tarantula (many of our insectivorous birds winter in the tropics, where there are tarantulas (which the birds avoid), and therein lies the reason for the caterpillar to look like one).  Although most photographs make Monkey Slugs look large, they measure only about an inch in diameter. Adult moths bear a slight resemblance to bees and wasps.

What is eye-catching about Monkey Slugs (as well as other slug caterpillars), besides their bizarre appearance, is the way in which they move.  Monkey Slugs glide – instead of the typical prolegs (located behind six true legs) they have suckers (see bottom right inset).  This gliding is responsible for its being classified as a “slug” caterpillar, for it moves much like a slug does.  The Monkey Slug is one of the slug caterpillars that does not sting, so you can handle it safely should you find one. (Thanks to Kathy and Geoff Marchant for photo op.)

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Mystery Photo

Who’s peeking over this leaf???  Go to the Naturally Curious blog and scroll down to “Comments” to enter your response.  Imaginative answers welcome.  This mystery will be solved in Wednesday’s 9/4/19 post.

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Beechdrops Flowering

10-1-18 beechdrops

Congratulations to “imachayes,” producer of wondermyway.com blog, for being the first (of many) readers to correctly identify the most recent Mystery Photo as a Beechdrops flower. A fairly inconspicuous brown stem produces two types of flowers, cleistogamous flowers that self-pollinate without ever opening, and chasmogamous flowers that open, but are often sterile. Those that are not sterile are pollinated by ants as well as other insects.

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) is a flowering plant that lacks chlorophyll and thus cannot photosynthesize and make its own food.  Instead, this plant obtains nutrients from American Beech trees. It belongs to a family of plants (Broomrape) whose members live as root parasites. Beechdrops insert a root-like structure called an haustorium (see photo inset) into an American Beech tree’s root and absorb enough nutrition to sustain themselves and produce flowers between August and October.  Being annuals, Beechdrops don’t live long enough to damage their host trees.

Because they lack chlorophyll and obvious leaves (their leaves are scale-like and pressed flat against their stem), Beechdrops are easily overlooked. Keep an eye on the forest floor near American beech trees for these 5 – 18-inch plants which are flowering right now. (Photo:  Beechdrops at base of an American Beech tree; inset:  root system of Beechdrops)

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Mystery Photo

9-26-18 mystery photo 031Can you name this 1/3-inch-long flower? If so (or even if you want to make a wild guess), go to the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com), scroll down and click on “Comments” to submit your entry. Look for the answer Monday, in the next Naturally Curious post.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.

 


Dark-eyed Junco Numbers Increasing

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

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

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Orders for 2019 Naturally Curious Calendars Can Be Placed

AUGUST black bears 20160828_1568FLATTENED NEWEST SHEET

Orders for the  2019 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed now by writing to me at 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. 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.

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.

 


Wild Grape Vines: Male or Female?

e-grapes_U1A9687Have you ever noticed that some wild grape vines bear fruit, while others appear barren? There is a very good reason for this — it depends on whether you are looking at a male or a female grape vine.  The most common wild grapes in New England are Vitis labrusca (Fox Grape) or Vitis riparia (Riverbank Grape, or Frost Grape) – both of which have separate male and female plants (dioecious).  The female plants, if their flowers are fertilized, produce grapes, whereas the flowers of the male vines do not.  In contrast, most cultivated grape varieties are hermaphroditic — their flowers have both male and female reproductive structures, and can self-pollinate and produce fruit.

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Broad-winged Hawk Migration Peaking

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

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

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

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Black Blister Beetles Consuming Asters

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Blister beetles are so-called because they contain a chemical in their hemolymph, or blood, called cantharidin.  If rubbed or pressed the beetles release cantharidin as a defense mechanism, which causes blistering on human skin.  The Black Blister Beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica) belongs to a genus of beetles that are highly toxic to horses — a few beetles fed in a single feeding of alfalfa can be lethal.

As larvae, most blister beetles are predators, often invading wild bee colonies and consuming bee larvae, as well as nectar and pollen.  Black Blister Beetle larvae and other blister beetles in the genus Epicauta prey on the eggs of grasshoppers.  Female Black Blister Beetles lay clusters of eggs in the soil in late summer. The small, active larvae that hatch from these eggs crawl over the soil surface entering cracks in search of grasshopper egg pods which are deposited in the ground. After finding an egg mass, the blister beetle larvae become immobile and spend the rest of their developmental time as legless grubs. The following summer they transform into the pupal stage and soon emerge in the adult stage. This is why blister beetle numbers increase dramatically following high grasshopper populations.

Once they mature into adulthood, Black Blister Beetles feed on plants (phytophagus) and are commonly found on flowers, especially those in the Aster/Composite family. They are said to be there for the nectar and pollen, but the Black Blister Beetle pictured denuded several aster blossoms of all petals during the time it was observed.

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Japanese Knotweed Flowering

9-12-18 Japanese bamboo_U1A9517Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) was introduced from Japan in the 1800’s as an ornamental; it was widely cultivated, escaped and is now well established throughout the Northeast. The World Conservation Union lists Japanese Knotweed among the top 100 worst invasive plants.  Its dense canopy and rapid spread through underground rhizomes make it a formidable threat to native plants and the animals that depend on them.

There are some redeeming qualities to this invasive plant, however. In addition to goldenrod and asters, Japanese Knotweed is a crucial source of late-season nectar and pollen. At this time of year, when Japanese Knotweed flowers, you can almost locate a stand using just your ears, the buzzing of honey bees gathering the last of their winter food supply from the thousands of tiny flowers is so loud.  A wide variety of  insects can be found on this member of the Buckwheat family eating leaves, foraging for nectar and pollen, and preying on the former. A recent survey revealed honey bees, bumble bees, ladybug beetles, flies, hornets, yellow jackets, stink bugs and tussock caterpillars, to name just a few.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Fall Webworms

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For several weeks white webs on the tips of branches have been apparent on many trees.  These silken tents are the work of the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea), a moth most associated with its larval stage. Fall Webworm caterpillars construct a web over the end of a branch, enclosing leaves on which they feed.  As the hairy, white caterpillars grow, they enlarge the web to encompass more leaves, with tents sometimes extending two to three feet.

Often mistaken as the work of Eastern Tent Caterpillars, the tents of these two moths can be distinguished by the season they appear (ETC are active in the spring, Fall Webworms in the fall) as well as the location of the tents (ETC are usually in the crotches of trees, Fall Webworms at the tip of branches). As soon as the eggs hatch in early summer, the Fall Webworm larvae begin to spin small silk webs over the foliage of the deciduous trees on which they feed (over 90 species). By fall the tents are conspicuous. A look inside one  reveals caterpillars, dead partially-eaten leaves, and fecal droppings.

The larvae feed together inside the increasingly large web for roughly six weeks, at which point they often start feeding independently before pupating in the ground over the winter and emerging as adult white moths the following summer.

If your favorite tree has one or more Fall Webworm nests in it, there’s no cause for alarm. These caterpillars may defoliate a tree occasionally, but rarely kill it, and usually only build tents on a handful of branches, if that. The larvae have more than 50 natural predators and 36 parasites that help control them. Also bear in mind that Fall Webworms do not eat the buds of next year’s leaves and the leaves they are feeding on will soon to drop to the ground. Next year leaves will appear on the currently affected branches with no sign of last year’s damage.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


American Goldfinches Dining On Thistle Seeds

A. goldfinch and thistle seed_U1A8258

American Goldfinches are almost exclusively granivorous (consumers of seeds/grains).  Very few insects are consumed by these birds, even when feeding nestlings.  This is highly unusual in that spiders and insects are an essential part of 96% of N.A. terrestrial bird species. At the very least, most seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects. (Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the raising of their young up to the host bird. It is rare that a cowbird chick will survive to leave an American Goldfinch nest, probably because it cannot thrive on a diet of virtually all seeds.)

The seeds of plants in the Composite family (sunflowers, thistles, dandelions, etc.) are the preferred food of goldfinches. Thistle seeds, being high in fat and protein, are high on the list. There appears to be a correlation between the late nesting period of goldfinches (late June or early July) and the flowering of thistles.  By the time American Goldfinch eggs have hatched, there is an ample supply of thistle seed for the nestlings.

Now is the time to keep an eye on the seedheads of thistles, dandelions and other composites for the acrobatic seed-plucking antics of American Goldfinches.

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Chicken of the Woods Fruiting

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Even though Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is one of the few edible fungi that is easily identified, it’s always best to have an expert confirm its identity if you are collecting it for consumption.  The bright yellow and orange coloring of its bulky, fan-shaped shelves is distinctive. On the underside of these shelves you will find tiny pores, instead of gills, containing spores, making it a polypore mushroom.  You can find single clusters of this fungus growing on living and dead trees, as well as logs totally covered with them.

Chicken of the Woods gets its name from its taste and texture, which is much like that of chicken.  If you are foraging for a meal, you want to be sure to pick a young specimen, and eat the outermost portion of the shelves (for their tenderness).  There are several species of Laetiporus fungi; the ones growing on hardwood are preferable for eating.

Chicken of the Woods is saprotrophic – the fungus feeds on dead trees.  It is also parasitic, and kills living host trees by causing the wood to rot, and the tree to become hollow and easily topple over.

For those interested, here is a recipe that the Oregon Mycological Society recommends:

POLYPORE OMELET

3 Tablespoons butter

1 cup diced Chicken of the Woods

1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or cream cheese

2 or 3 shallots, diced

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

5 or 6 eggs

1/2 cup cream or half and half

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over low heat.

Beat the eggs and cream, add salt and pepper to taste; pour into the pan.

As the eggs start to cook, sprinkle the Chicken of the Woods, cheese, shallots and parsley over the top.

Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the egg mixture sets.

Fold the omelet over and remove from the heat; cover and let sit for 1 minute.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.