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

September

Oak Leaf Seed Galls Releasing Wasps

One of the most unusual looking insect galls, the Oak Leaf Seed Gall, is produced by a tiny gall wasp, Dryocosmus deciduus, on Black and Red Oaks. The leaves of these trees react to a wasp laying an egg on them by creating a unique swelling, or gall, around it. You can find clusters of up to 40 Oak Leaf Seed Galls at this time of year starting to burst open, releasing the adult wasps which have matured inside them.

Few records exist of galls, many of which are homes for developing young insects, being used as food for humans or for domestic animals but Oak Leaf Seed Galls, known as “black oak wheat” in Missouri and Arkansas, have been used to fatten cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens due to their high starch content.

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Snapping Turtle Eggs Hatching

For the past three months, Snapping Turtle eggs have been buried roughly five to ten inches deep in sandy soil (depth depends on the size of the female laying them), absorbing  heat from the sun-warmed soil.  Come September, the relatively few Snapping Turtle eggs that have avoided predation are hatching.  The sex of the baby turtles correlates to the temperature of the clutch. Temperatures of 73-80 °F will produce males, slightly above and below will produce both sexes, and more extreme temperatures will produce females.  The miniature snappers crawl their way up through the earth and head for the nearest pond, probably the most perilous journey of their lives. 

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Common Hazelnuts Maturing

There are two species of native hazelnuts that you are likely to come upon in the Northeast – Beaked Hazelnut, Corylus cornuta, (see https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/beaked-hazelnuts-maturing/) and American Hazelnut, Corylus americana. The nuts of both of these species are edible.

The fruit of American Hazelnut is produced in clusters of one to five, with each half-inch brown nut enclosed in a hairy, leaf-like husk with ragged edges. These nuts are maturing now, in September and October.  They are best harvested while the husks are still green, as once they turn brown, there will be stiff competition for them from local wildlife.

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Common Green Darners Migrating South

Monarchs aren’t the only insect that are seasonal migrants.  The Common Green Darner dragonfly and a few other dragonfly species are as well.  However, where Monarchs move northward in the spring over several generations, one generation of Common Green Darners flies all the way from southern U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean in the spring to New England and Canada.  Here they lay eggs which give rise to a second generation that migrates south in September and October. Upon reaching their destination they then breed. A third generation emerges around November and lives entirely in the south during winter.  It’s their offspring that start the cycle again by swarming northward as temperatures warm in the spring.

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Bumblebees Nectar Robbing

Flowering plants have a mutually beneficial arrangement with pollinators.  Insects and other pollinators that visit flowers inadvertently pollinate them when they retrieve nectar and pollen – a win-win situation for both flower and pollinator. Occasionally, however, creatures opt for a short cut to a flower’s nectaries and instead of entering the flower through its natural opening, they bite “robbing holes” that lead directly to the nectaries, bypassing the flower’s reproductive structures; consequently they do not pollinate the flower.

Charles Darwin refers to bumble bees “stealing” nectar from flowers in this manner in his 1859 book, The Origin of Species. Nectar robbers include species of carpenter bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, wasps, ants, hummingbirds, and some songbirds. In this photograph a bumble bee is chewing a hole at the base of a Cardinal Flower in order to access the flower’s nectaries more directly.

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Sycamore Fruits Ripening

Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), well-known for their patchwork bark, produce their fruit in balls suspended by long stems.  The individual seeds clustered into these balls have brown hair-like structures at their base which help disperse them, but dispersal occurs gradually and the fruit often persist through the winter.

Although usually fruiting is prolific every year, there aren’t the number of Sycamores one might imagine sprouting near an established tree.  This is in part due to the fact that Sycamore seeds don’t germinate unless they land on very moist soil with lots of sunlight and little competition from other plants.  Once established, a Sycamore tree reduces competition by having fruits (and leaves) that produce compounds that inhibit the growth of other plants.

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Cedar-Apple Rust

Congratulations to Roseanne Saalfield, the first of several readers who correctly identified the Mystery Photo as a stage in the life cycle of Cedar-Apple Rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae Schwein). This rust is a member of the family Pucciniaceae, a group of fungi that contains many species that usually require plants from two different families (usually within a mile of each other) in order to complete their life cycle: one plant from the Cupressaceae family (eastern red cedar, juniper) and the other from the Rosaceae family (crabapple, apple, hawthorn, serviceberry).

The fungus assumes very different forms on each host. On rose family plants, the fungus can be present on the leaves (orange spots on the surface of the leaves and tiny projections beneath them) as well as the fruit. On cedars and junipers, brown spherical galls produce orange, fleshy projections.

For those readers who wish to know the fairly involved details of the life cycle of this fungus, read on: This rust produces four kinds of spores: basidiospores, teliospores, spermatia, and aeciospores. Teliospores are produced on orange, gelatinous telial horns (see bottom photo) which originate from hard, brown galls on red cedars or other junipers, usually in the spring when it’s been raining. Teliospores germinate to form basidia. Basidia produce basidiospores that are released into the air, blown two to three miles potentially to an apple or hawthorn leaf or fruit. They germinate and form a yellow or orange spot on the leaf or fruit (see photo). These spots produce spermogonia that in turn produce spermatia. The spermatia are released into a sticky liquid attractive to many insects. As insects carry spermatia from one spot to the next fertilization takes place. The fungus grows on the fruit or through the leaf and produce aecia on the underside of the leaf (see photo). The aecia produce aeciospores that are windblown back to the red cedars. They then germinate and start the formation of galls that in the following year will produce telial horns to start the process over again. (U.S. Forest Service)

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Mystery Photo

Do you recognize this phenomenon? Hint: it is a crab apple leaf. Submit your mystery solution under “Comments” on the Naturally Curious blog (www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com). It will be solved on Friday’s post!

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Save Those Seedheads!

People have Echinacea (Coneflower) in their medicine cabinets for a number of reasons. One of the more prevalent ones is Echinacea’s purported ability to shorten the duration of the common cold and flu, as well as lessen the severity of symptoms.  It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that humans learned of the possible benefits of this plant by observing the presence of butterflies (fritillaries, monarchs, painted ladies and swallowtails) at its flowers and birds (American Goldfinch, Black-Capped Chickadee, Dark-Eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Pine Siskin) at its seedheads.

This is the time of year gardeners are starting to think about cutting back their dying perennials in an effort to have tidier gardens.  If you have Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or one of the other species of Echinacea you know that they are no longer attracting the myriad butterflies that visit in the summer.  However, hold your clippers, for it’s highly likely that birds, especially American Goldfinches, will be feeding on your coneflower seeds in the near future. These seedheads are beneficial not only because they provide seeds, but because they reduce the birds’ reliance on feeders in the winter.  Finches are highly susceptible to Finch Eye Disease which spreads easily from infected birds to other finches when they all use the same feeder.

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Ant Queens & Males Swarming

Ant colonies consist of one or more queens, female workers and males.  In most species, only the males and queens have wings.  Periodically the winged ants emerge from the colony in large swarms in order to mate.  Swarming behavior is usually synchronized with other nearby colonies, so large numbers (hundreds or thousands) of winged ants suddenly appear.  After mating, the males die and the queens chew their wings off and use the remaining wing muscles as a source of nutrients during the early stages of establishing a colony.

(Photo:  A swarm of ants gathering as they emerge from their ground nest. The pictured (inset) ant has removed three of its four wings and is in the process of removing the fourth wing. Thanks to Alice Trageser for photo opportunity.)

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Slugs Mating

Monday’s post stated that the nature of the activity the slugs were engaged in was undetermined.  Since then it has come to my attention that had I been truly “naturally curious” and popped the bubble of slime, I would have had the rare opportunity of seeing two entwined slug penises.  Here is a descriptive quote describing slug reproduction.

Like all slugs, those in the genus Arion are hermaphrodites (possessing both male and female sex organs). They can reproduce either by self- or cross-fertilization, depending upon conditions and habitat stability. When two slugs mate with each other, they each simultaneously play the role of both sexes, exchanging sperm with their male genitalia. At times, the male sex organs of two slugs become entangled during mating and the slugs may bite them off in order to free themselves, a not uncommon sacrifice known as ‘apophallation.’ From then onward, the apophallated slugs are only able to reproduce as females. Arion subfuscus mates in the mid-to-late summer. Several days after mating, slugs will lay hundreds of 3-4 mm eggs in the soil, and die shortly thereafter. Although there is no parental care in this species, the eggs are imbued with a caustive agent called miriamin that serves in a large part to protect them from predation. In around a month, the juveniles hatch as small, pale-brown versions of their adult selves. They typically take at least 4-6 months to achieve sexual maturity, mating and dying themselves before the new generation hatches from the eggs.” (https://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/1952620518)


Slug Slime

Most of us who have encountered slugs know that if you handle one, the slime it produces on the lower surface of its body persists on your hands even when you wash them with soap and water. (If you let the slime dry and rub your hands together, it will come off in small beads.)  Slug slime contains water, mucus and salts. It keeps a slug’s skin moist, preventing it from drying out, and aids in locomotion.

Slug slime changes as the slug moves. Initially it has the consistency of a liquid gel.  It is solid at rest and turns to liquid under pressure.  A slug sticks part of its body to the ground with its slime, uses its muscles to move its body forward, and then pulls its body away from where it was stuck. More slime is released and the process is repeated.  It’s interesting to note that slugs are strong enough to move without the aid of slime, but nonetheless are always producing it.

Slug slime has its good and bad points. Scientists are studying slug slime properties in their search for a better surgical adhesive. Most substances are either flexible or sticky, not both, like slime.  On the other hand, there are some aspects of slug slime that are not all that appealing.  In addition to being next to impossible to remove from your hands, slug slime can carry rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis), a parasitic roundworm that mainly lives in rodents such as rats and can infect slugs (and snails) that come into contact with infected rodent feces.  This disease can cause a form of meningitis which is prevalent in Southeast Asia and tropical Pacific islands.

(Photo:  Two slugs & bubble of slime. Nature of activity not determined! Thanks to Alice Trageser and Mary Landon for photo opportunity.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button. (NB:  The “Donate” button on the Naturally Curious blog is currently not working. If you would like to donate to the sustainability of this blog, you may send a check made out to Mary Holland to me at 505 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT  05482.  Thank you!)


Owlet Moths Laying Eggs

One morning multiple 1”-2” white blotches appear on the screening of your porch or windows.  They weren’t there the previous day, so they had to have been deposited during the night.  What nocturnal creature is responsible and what exactly are they?

A close look reveals that each white patch consists of hundreds of minuscule white balls – eggs that an insect must have deposited.  Their size, shape and coloring indicate that they were most likely produced by Owlet Moths or noctuids, members of the Noctuidae family.  Owlet Moths make up over 25% of all butterflies and moths — there are 75,000 known species worldwide with thousands yet to be identified. Most adults are a fairly drab shade of brown and are well camouflaged with lines and spots that resemble tree bark or bird droppings. (Moth coloring often resembles the bark of the food plant its larvae prefer.) Owlet Moth larvae are relatively hairless and are referred to as cutworms or armyworms (they can occur in destructive swarms and cut the stems of plants). Several species are serious crop or garden pests.

A majority of the moths in this family are nocturnal and are attracted to light.  After mating, female Owlet Moths produce between 300 and 1,500 eggs, depending on the species.  Newly laid eggs are spherical and often cream color but may turn yellow, orange, pink, red or gray within a day. Those laid this fall will overwinter and larvae will hatch in the spring.

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Caspian Terns Migrating

Caspian Terns are the largest terns in the world, with a wingspan of up to nearly five feet.  It’s hard to miss their large orange bill, but you’re not likely to see one in most of New England except during migration. (One exception is the Lake Champlain Islands in Vermont.)  A few weeks after fledging, juvenile and adult terns gather at feeding sites near breeding areas and migrate south in stages.  They sometimes migrate individually and sometimes in families or larger groups. The last of the migrants are passing overhead in the next few weeks, heading for overwintering sites along the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines.

(Photo: The Caspian Tern flies over the water with its bill pointing down, looking for fish. When it locates its prey, it plunges into the water to capture it, sometimes submersing its entire body.)

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Preparing For Winter

Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) eat about two pounds of food per week.  Nuts and other seeds are at the top of the list, but fungi, berries, bird eggs and nestlings, tree buds and sap are also consumed.  Because they stay active in winter, Eastern Gray Squirrels must store food in the fall in order to survive the colder months, and this food must be viable for the duration of the winter.  They are what are called “scatter-hoarders” – they bury each nut separately, not all in one spot. After digging a hole 1-2 inches deep with its front paws, the squirrel places a nut in the hole and forcibly puts it in place by pounding it into the ground with its front incisors.  It then fills the hole with soil and covers it with leaves.  A combination of memory (experiments found that this works for about 20 minutes) and after that, scent, allows squirrels to relocate a portion of their cached nuts.

Hickory nuts are the food of choice for Eastern Gray Squirrels, in part because they have twice the calories of an average acorn.  They also store well over winter, as they don’t germinate until spring.  As the accompanying photograph shows, Eastern Gray Squirrels, before burying the nuts (in this case, Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata), methodically remove the fragrant husks, leaving a pile of small pieces of husk on the ground. It’s likely this practice developed in order to prevent competitors from smelling, digging up and consuming the squirrel’s winter food supply.

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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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