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

September

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.)

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 this blog, you may send a check made out to Mary Holland to me at 505 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT  05482.)


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.

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.


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.

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.

 


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

9-26-18 junco IMG_0308

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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