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Albino Porcupine

Albinism is a rare genetic condition caused by mutations of certain genes that affect the amount of melanin a body produces. Melanin controls the pigmentation of an animal’s skin, eyes and hair.  There are other conditions that cause a partial lack of pigmentation, such as leucism, but true albinism can be detected from the color of an animal’s eyes:  blood vessels normally masked by pigment show through in albino creatures, making their eyes pinkish in color.

The rate of albinism in wildlife is estimated from 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 1 million. (Purdue Forestry & Natural Resources) Albino wildlife, such as the pictured Porcupine, often have poor eyesight, which puts them at a disadvantage when hunting for food and avoiding danger. In some cases they have trouble finding a mate, and their inability to camouflage themselves makes them vulnerable to predators. (Photo by Owen Cushman)

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A Female Opossum’s Pouch

The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is found further north than any other marsupial in the world, and is North America’s only marsupial. Like the kangaroo and koala, the female Opossum possesses a pouch which acts as a nursery for her young.  After a very brief gestation period of 11-13 days, up to 20 embryonic (each the size of a honeybee) young climb (witnesses say it’s more like “swim”) from the birth canal into the pouch, where 13 teats are waiting for the first 13 babies that attach themselves. The mother helps by licking the hair leading into the pouch, providing a moist path for the young to follow on this first long and arduous journey they undertake. 

Once a young Opossum latches onto a teat, the teat swells in the Opossum’s mouth, helping it to remain attached for a little over two months during which time it receives nourishment and continues its development.  At the point when they are too large to be contained in the pouch, the young leave and are often seen hitching a ride on their mother’s back. (Photo: the interior of a female Opossum’s pouch, showing some of the 13 cream-colored teats)

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Fringed Polygala Flowering

Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia), also called Gaywings, is a diminutive flower (1 ½” long), a member of the Milkwort family, and produces compounds reputed to increase milk production in nursing mammals. The flaring wings and propeller-like fringe on the flower’s tip give it the appearance of a small magenta airplane. When pollinators (mostly bumble bees) land on the fringe-tipped petal, the reproductive structures are exposed.

In addition to the showy flowers that are insect-pollinated, there are also inconspicuous flowers that are borne underground and which self-fertilize without opening.

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Eastern Whip-poor-wills Incubating Eggs

It is so easy to be unaware of the mysteries and the magic of the natural world.  Who would have guessed that Eastern Whip-poor-wills (Antrostomus vociferus) time their egg-laying with the phases of the moon, but research confirms that they do, and for a very good reason.

Whip-poor-wills are insectivores, favoring large moths in particular, and feed on them at dusk and at dawn when there’s light enough to see them.  A full moon extends the amount of hours that are light enough for foraging to take place.  Whip-poor-will chicks that are born ten days before a full moon will be at their hungriest at a time when the moon is full and moonlight provides the maximum number of hours for foraging.  Ten days plus roughly 20 days of egg incubation means that Whip-poor-wills are most likely sitting on eggs that will hatch next week, a little over a week before the next full moon (June 3rd).

Unfortunately, Eastern Whip-poor-wills are in decline. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates that there has been a 69% drop in populations between 1966 and 2010. The exact reasons for this drop are still being determined, but it appears that the decline of moths is partially responsible. If interested in contributing to research on this subject, you can join the citizen-science project (United States Nightjar Survey Network) based at the college of William & Mary. (Print by John James Audubon)

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Red Fox Kits Leading Worry-free Life

Red fox kits are roughly a month to two months old now.  In another month or two they will be weaned and on solid food that they will have to learn how to capture, but for now their parents are caring for all their needs, serving as a milk bar, groomer and protector.  Days are spent near the den, tumbling and mock fighting with their siblings, chewing on practically anything from sticks to feathers (and each other), and napping in the sun while they wait for parental food delivery.  Life will never be this carefree again!

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Miterwort Flowering

Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), also known as Bishop’s Cap, is named for the resemblance of its two-peaked fruits to the hats (known as miters) worn by Catholic bishops.  This relatively small plant is easy to overlook, but those who are naturally curious have a treat in store. The tiny, five-pointed-snowflake flowers that extend up a slender stalk captivate anyone who takes the time to examine them with a hand lens. Each plant bears between five and 20 of these delicate blossoms.  The flowers have a ring of nectaries located just below the pollen-bearing stamens which increases the likelihood of visiting bees and syrphid flies inadvertently collecting pollen and dispersing it onto the next Miterwort they visit.

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Black-capped Chickadees Nest-building

Spring is here and nest building has begun for many of our cavity nesters. Protected from the wind and low temperatures that can occur this time of year, birds that nest in cavities get a jump start on starting a family.  Black-capped Chickadees typically seek out trees with punky wood that is soft enough for their small beaks to excavate.  Birch, aspen and sugar maple are chosen with regularity.

While the nest site is often chosen by the female, both male and female chickadees participate in the excavation of the cavity.  They take turns disappearing inside the hole (that they have created or one that a previous nesting woodpecker made or a natural cavity) and chipping away at its interior and then exit with a beak full of wood chips. Unlike many cavity nesters that just drop the chips to the ground from the hole, chickadees usually fly a short distance away before dropping them. 

The female alone builds the nest inside the cavity.   She usually uses coarse material such as moss for the foundation, and lines the nest with finer material such as rabbit fur and deer hair. Within one to two days of finishing the nest, she lays anywhere from one to thirteen eggs.

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Wild Ginger Reproduction

The flowers of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) often escape detection from humans, as they are borne at ground level, beneath the plant’s paired leaves. For years it was assumed that the dark maroon (flesh-like) color of the flower and its accessibility to insects promoted pollination by carrion-seeking flies.  It turns out, however, that most fly-pollinated flowers have a rather putrid aroma, which Wild Ginger lacks, so it may not be the lure of decomposing flesh that attracts flies. They have been observed visiting the flowers, collecting pollen and escaping the cold winds of April and early May inside the flowers, but they have not been confirmed as actually pollinating the flowers.

Wild Ginger has two back-up strategies if cross-pollination by insects doesn’t occur. One is self-pollination, when the flower’s pollen-bearing stamens mature and move into a position adjacent to the stigma of the flower (see white anthers pressing against central pistil in photo). The other, and most common, reproductive strategy is through vegetative reproduction – spreading rhizomes just beneath the leaf litter.

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Bald-faced Hornet Queens Soon To Emerge From Hibernation

Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are a species of wasp, named for the white (“bald”) markings on their heads. Known for their large, hanging paper nests, most of these insects have a relatively short life – no longer than the span of a summer. Four to seven hundred hornets, mostly female workers in addition to one queen, occupy the nest all summer. 

Come late summer/early fall the sole egg-laying queen begins to lay eggs that become drones (males) and new queens. When mature, these fertile males and queens fly off to mate. The drones and the female workers in the nest then die; the old queen, if not killed by workers, dies with them around mid-autumn. The fertilized young queens hibernate over winter in rotting logs, under bark and in crevices, and start new colonies in the spring of the following year.  A recent exploration of a rotting log revealed that bald-faced hornet queens are not active yet, but soon will be. (Photo: Bald-faced Hornet queen)

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Bloodroot Fruit and Seed Formation


The process of a Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flower becoming a capsule containing seeds is primarily dependent upon insects (usually small, solitary, native bees) pollinating the flower.  Two to three hours after the flower has opened, some of the stamens begin to release their pollen. Bees (often dark and hairy so that they may absorb warmth from the sun and fly in cool temperatures) transport pollen to a female stigma, thereby pollinating the flower.  Within 12 hours of pollination the flower’s stamens wither and the petals fall soon thereafter (see photo).  If by the third day after opening the flower has not been cross-pollinated by insects, some of the stamens bend inward toward the stigma, enabling the plant to self-pollinate. (Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast by Carol Gracie)

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Gray Squirrels’ Diet Changing

When you think of a Gray Squirrel’s diet, you think of nuts – acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, etc., and for half of the year, these nutritious sources of food do serve as their main diet.  Fall is spent burying individual nuts which will serve as their winter food supply.  By spring, however, the fall stores of nuts and seeds are depleted, and it is one of the toughest times of year for these rodents.  Tree buds, flowers, and the softer bark of some trees are their primary source of food.  While abundant, buds and flowers are notably poor in calories and costly to digest. Finding and consuming food can occupy most of a Gray Squirrel’s day at this time of year. (Photo: Gray Squirrel eating Sugar Maple buds, spotted by sharp-eyed Lily Piper Brown)

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The Beneficiaries Of Your Generosity

Five years ago Naturally Curious readers responded to the loss of my son-in-law with a tremendous outpouring of generosity to my daughter Sadie and her two children, now aged 5 (Lily Piper) and almost 8 (Otis) .  I wanted to share a recent photograph of them and again thank everyone who was so kind,  thoughtful and generous.  They are doing well and are the joy of my life.  They are so grateful for all you did for them.

Male Eastern Meadowlarks In Full Song

Sweet-spring-is-here…..sweet-spring-is-here…”  Three to five, but often four, high-pitched plaintive notes can be heard from the tops of trees and fence posts once Eastern Meadowlarks have returned the open country and farmland of northern New England from their more southerly wintering grounds.  Likely spots to find these members of the blackbird family breeding include the Champlain Valley of Vermont or the more southerly portions of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire as well as Maine coastal regions.   

Once territorial males arrive, they fill the air with song.  The flute-like whistles of their primary song gently descend in pitch and are immediately identifiable.  Singing declines during incubation but resumes with the original intensity during renesting (they often have two broods). One hundred different song patterns have been identified but their primary song is sung often, both early in the morning and fairly late in the afternoon.  Should you hear this hauntingly beautiful series of notes, scan the horizon for the tallest tree or structure and you may be rewarded with the sight of a male’s bright yellow underparts and chest that bears a striking black chevron. (To hear an Eastern Meadowlark singing go to

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Common Gartersnakes Emerging From Hibernation

Snakes, being cold-blooded, or ectotherms, must find a spot to spend the winter where their bodies will not freeze.  Not being able to dig their own dens, or hibernacula, snakes often rely on natural cavities and the burrows of other animals such as woodchucks and chipmunks that are below the frost line.  During winter, typically between October and March, a hundred or more individuals of different species can gather in the same den, slowing down their metabolism and tightly coiling their bodies together to stay warm enough to survive.

Once the earth starts to warm up, snakes emerge. Common Gartersnakes remain near their winter dens for several days.  Males appear first in the spring, sometimes in groups as large as several hundred snakes. Females tend to emerge singly and over a longer period of time.  Gartersnake courtship soon follows and can take the form of a writhing mass of bodies, called a mating ball, where one female is surrounded by and has her pick of a hundred or more lustful males.

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A Nod To Journaling

Every year we have the opportunity to witness and compare the timing of the annual spring appearance of plant and animal species where we live.  Keeping a journal and noting over a period of years when Silver Maples flower, Killdeer reappear, Spotted Salamanders emerge above ground, etc. can provide valuable phenological information.  It can also be a wonderful guide to when you should keep your eyes open and what you should keep them open for.

As a rule, Ospreys return and engage in copulation during the first week of April in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. I know this only because I’ve jotted down my observations in a journal I’ve kept over the past 50 years.  Each spring I religiously review past years’ journal entries for where I am currently living.  This year’s review made me aware that chances were as good as they get for witnessing raptor courtship this week.  A trip to a local Osprey nest confirmed that they had indeed returned.  Two hours of waiting was rewarded with the accompanying photograph.  (They do copulate an average of 160 times per clutch, so luck was in my favor!) If you’re fortunate enough to live in the same area for a lengthy period of time, journaling can be an invaluable tool for the naturally curious.

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Grubs: Raccoon Delicacies

Besides moles and voles, which leave obvious pathways and mounds on the ground, skunks and raccoons are the biggest culprits when it comes to wreaking havoc on lawns.  Both are primarily interested in finding grubs (immature insects, or larvae, primarily of beetles) to eat.  Because they go about locating their prey differently, it’s fairly easy to tell which one has come calling. 

Skunks typically root around with their noses in the soil and then dig individual little funnel-shaped holes in the ground. Raccoons tend to use their paws like hands, digging, lifting and tearing off chunks of sod and flipping them over to inspect for grubs. 

After hatching, many insect larvae feed on the grass roots near the surface of a lawn during the summer, move deeper in the soil during the winter, and then move back up as the soil warms in the spring before pupating and emerging as adult beetles.  Raccoons have learned that this is the time of year when grubs are their biggest and juiciest, and easiest to excavate.

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Wood Frogs Thawing Out

It won’t be long before you see or hear a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus), one of the first frogs to emerge in the spring from its dormant state of brumation (similar to hibernation in mammals).  Unlike most other frog species that have to overwinter underwater or below the frost line, Wood Frogs are able to survive just inches below the surface of the leaf litter.

The reason they can tolerate freezing temperatures is that their liver produces antifreeze-like glucose which is concentrated in vital organs and prevents ice crystals from forming that would injure the frog.  Thanks to this adaptation, up to 65 % of the water in their body can freeze.  Their heart stops beating, their brain and kidneys stop functioning, their respiration ceases and they become as solid as a rock during this period.  However, with the onset of spring the frozen frogs start thawing and regain consciousness within 24 hours. Soon thereafter they head for their breeding pools.

N.B: For readers in the Northeast, tomorrow, Saturday, April 1, it’s supposed to be rainy and if it’s 40 degrees or milder conditions will be perfect for the”Big Night,” when Wood Frogs, Peepers, and mole salamanders migrate to breeding pools.

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Divers & Dabblers

Late March and April are prime time to observe waterfowl that are returning to the Northeast to breed, as well as passing through on their way to more northern breeding grounds.  Birders divide ducks into tribes, and two of these tribes are the divers/pochards (Aythyini) and dabblers/puddlers (Anatini).  You can tell them apart by the way they eat, look, fly and where they are found. 

MANNER OF EATING:  These two groups’ names pertain to the manner in which they obtain food.  Divers dive down beneath the water to obtain their food. Dabblers eat food that is at or just below the surface – you often see their tails up in the air while their heads are submerged as they search for plant material and invertebrates, such as the pictured Gadwall. 

POSITION ON WATER:  When you look at a duck on the water, notice how it is positioned.  Diving ducks, with dense and more compact bodies, often sit lower in the water.  By squeezing their feathers against their body to expel trapped air, they can quickly dive and chase prey such as fish and crustaceans.  Dabblers often float higher in the water, making their tails more visible than diving ducks.

POSITION OF LEGS:  The legs of diving ducks are located at the hind end of their body, where they act as effective propellers in water (but don’t lend themselves to traveling on land).  Dabbling ducks tend to have their legs located more centrally on their body, which enhances their ability to walk and feed on land. 

LANDING AND TAKING OFF:  Whereas diving ducks often need large expanses of water to land on as well as to take off from due to small wings relative to their body size, dabbling ducks’ proportionately large wings allow them to land and quickly take off from smaller bodies of water.

HABITAT:  Diving ducks are often located in deep water; dabblers in shallow water, often no more than a foot deep.

Diving Ducks:  Canvasback, Redhead, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck

Dabbling Ducks: Mallard, Mottled Duck, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Wood Duck

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2022-23 Monarch Butterfly Winter Numbers Decreased

Every year the Monarch population is estimated by counting the number of hectares (one hectare = 2.5 acres) that contain Oyamel Fir trees inhabited by Monarchs at their central Mexican overwintering grounds.  The 2022-23 count which was just released showed a 22 percent decrease from the previous year.  

The Monarch population has been declining since counts began roughly 30 years ago.  Scientists feel the most important influences are climate change, herbicides and habitat.  The weather in the southern United States in the spring, when monarchs are migrating north from wintering in Mexico, is crucial as is summer weather.  The creation of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops has had a devastating effect on milkweed growth in corn and soybean fields, where it used to flourish. As the Monarchs’ sole source of egg-laying vegetation and larval food, milkweed species are essential to their well-being.

Creating more milkweed habitat appears to be the single most effective way of coming to the Monarchs’ aid.  Be it your back yard, school yard, or road sides, disperse those milkweed seeds far and wide! The butterflies that left New England last fall are starting their journey north right now. They will lay eggs and die along the journey, but their offspring will benefit from the efforts we make now. (Photo: Monarchs overwintering on Oyamel Fir trees in the Transvolcanic Mts. of central Mexico; photo and information resource: )

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Web Cam & Denning Black Bears

Someone has set up a web cam in Pennsylvania under a house where a black bear and at least one cub are denning.  Lots of sleeping, but at least one intermittently active cub whose antics you might enjoy!

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Beavers Posting Their Land

It’s not as neat nor as tall a mound as it typically is, but the vegetation you see on the bank of this pond is a beaver’s way of posting its territory.  In two to three months, around the time that beavers give birth, the two-year-old beavers inhabiting a lodge typically leave to seek greener pastures in the form of unclaimed ponds or to form their own pond.  No-one is quite sure whether parents encourage this departure, or whether the young beavers take it upon themselves to leave, but especially when the food supply is limited, the two-year-olds disperse.

Older, established beavers, having experienced this exodus themselves when they were young, are well aware that two-year-olds will be scouting for a new spot to set up residence in the spring.  In order to discourage any potential intruders, beavers build one or more “scent mounds” on the shore of their pond or stream that consist of mud and vegetation they’ve gathered from the bottom of the pond or stream.  They then walk over these mounds and excrete liquid castoreum from castor glands (located near their anal glands) onto it.  The scent of castoreum is very distinctive and conveys information to beavers passing by that tells them that this location has been claimed and to move on. (If you come upon a scent mound, I encourage you to smell it – castoreum has, to some people, a very pleasing scent.)

Interestingly, castoreum contains salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in aspirin. Salicylic acid is found in willows (which beavers eat), and native Americans used willow bark to treat headaches.

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Striped Skunks On The Prowl

Striped Skunks avoid the colder spells of winter by slowing down their metabolism and entering into a state of torpor inside dens they dig themselves or in abandoned dens (often those of foxes).  Females often gather together during this time, while males tend to be more solitary.  Both have been found cohabiting with opossums and raccoons during the colder months. 

In the Northeast, peak breeding season for Striped Skunks is in March and this is when you are most likely to see skunk trails in the snow as they wander in search of a mate.  Skunks travel as much as two-and-a-half miles a night, with males entering the den of a female in estrus and mating with her.  While females only mate with one male, males attempt to mate with every female on their territory. (Photo: Striped Skunk tracks)

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An Amazing Read

Occasionally I come across a book that I would love the whole world to know about, and The Immense World by Ed Yong is one of them. How different animals sense the world has always been of interest to me, and I thought I had a fairly broad understanding of this subject until I opened this book.

Yong explores how different animals experience the world through their varying perceptions of smells, tastes, light, color, pain, heat, vibrations, sounds, and electric and magnetic fields. Each page contains information that will have you looking at our fellow inhabitants with a sense of wonder and awe. As Jeff Vandermeer (author of Authority) wrote: “A powerful and immersive deep dive into the perceptual lives of other organisms – and a persuasive case for more empathy and understanding of the complexity, sophistication, and sheer riotous joy of the nonhuman world – it’s an instant classic.”

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Snow Fleas Are Peppering The Snow

Duringwarming temperatures at this time of year the snow can be covered with tiny black specks (1 – 2 mm long), resembling pepper sprinkled on the snow.  If you watch them for a period of time, you’ll see that these specks move — leap, in fact — a distance often several times their body length.  These moving specks are called snow fleas, a species of springtail, not a type of flea. For that matter, they are not insects, but close relatives to arthropods, specifically crustaceans. During most of the year snow fleas live in the soil and leaf litter, consuming fungi, algae and decaying organic matter. On warm winter days they appear on the surface of the snow, often at the base of trees or in track indentations. 

Their acrobatic prowess is achieved not with wings, which they lack, but with two tail-like spring projections, or furcula, which are held like a spring against the bottom of their abdomen by a kind of latch. When the snow flea wants to move, the latch is released and the furcula springs downward, catapulting the snowflea as far as 100 times its body length.

Snowfleas in the genus Hypogastrura possess three pinkish anal sacs which are usually located inside the snowflea, hidden from view. Just before jumping the snowflea everts these sacs from its anus. Their function has not been confirmed, but many biologists believe they serve as a sticky safety bag which prevents the snowflea from bouncing around when it lands.

The anti-freeze protein that allows snow fleas to be active at colder temperatures than insects is being studied in the hopes that they can be used to better store transplant organs.

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