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Naturally Curious Hiatus

Naturally Curious will be on hiatus for the next month or so due to a move I am making across the state of Vermont to the town of Shelburne.  I will sorely miss the hills, fields, streams and woods of the Upper Valley, but look forward to making new discoveries in the Champlain Valley.  (I’m hoping readers who live near my new abode will be as helpful in letting me know about local flora and fauna as those in the Upper Valley have been over the past 17 years!)

The Naturally Curious blog will resume as soon as I have settled and have a working computer.  The timing of this move isn’t ideal, as there is so much happening this time of year that I would love to be out photographing and sharing with readers, but I look forward to being able to do that again in the very near future, hopefully in July. Thank you so much for your patience and support. Stay naturally curious and may the next month be filled with exciting discoveries! And please stay healthy.  (Photo:  Showy Lady’s Slipper,Cypripedium reginae)

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Common Loons Incubating Eggs

Common Loons prefer nesting on islands (versus the mainland) and typically their nest is adjacent to water that is deep enough for an underwater approach.  Males usually choose the nest site, and return to it year after year if they have reproductive success there. Both male and female loons construct the nest, using vegetation growing adjacent to or on the bottom of the pond near the nest site.  It takes them about a week to build their nest and they add continuously to it throughout incubation.

Usually two eggs are laid, occasionally one, and both parents incubate the eggs.  Incubation lasts 26 – 29 days.  Just prior to hatching you can hear the chicks peeping inside the egg before they cut through the membrane and outer shell with their “egg tooth,” extract themselves from the egg, dry their down and enter the water.  They are born knowing how to swim.

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Velvet-covered Antlers Growing

Male White-tailed Deer grow a new pair of antlers every year starting when they are one year old.  The size of the antlers depends on the age of the deer, genetics, and diet. Before antlers actually appear, structures called pedicles that connect the antlers to the skull develop.  Growth of the actual antlers begins in March or April and as more nutritious food becomes more available during May and June antlers grow more rapidly.

Antlers are one of the fastest growing bones that exist; growth is regulated by hormones which are controlled by the photoperiod, or length of day . Yearling antlers can grow about 1/8-inch a day during the summer, and adults as much as 1/4th of an inch.  While they are growing, antlers are covered with a layer of tissue called “velvet” which is dense with blood vessels that carry nutrients to the antlers. In August the supply of blood to the velvet diminishes and the antlers begin to harden. By September the velvet has dried and is falling off.  Antlers are used as weapons during rut, or the mating season, after which they fall to the ground, providing a valuable source of calcium and phosphorus for rodents. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Painted Turtles Laying Eggs

Painted Turtles have been engaging in intricate, underwater courtship (consisting of mutual stroking) and mating since March or April. Females can store sperm for several months, enabling them to delay egg-laying, as well as to lay several clutches of eggs.  Nesting activity peaks in June and early July, when females leave their ponds to dig holes in sandy soil and gravel (lower left photo) in which they deposit 3 – 15 oval, white eggs.  Note in the lower right photo, taken after the turtle had departed, that the turtle buries her eggs and tamps down the earth so effectively it’s hard to detect that the ground has been disturbed.

In August or September Painted Turtle eggs hatch and most of the young turtles head to nearby ponds. Occasionally, in northern New England, the young overwinter in the nest and emerge the following spring. (Photos by Jody Crosby)

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Eastern Chipmunks Nesting

Eastern Chipmunks breed twice a year, typically in March/April and in June/July.  After mating, the female chipmunk outfits a central nesting chamber deep within the ground with leaves.  She will give birth to four to six young in about a month.  When born the young are about the size of a jelly bean, toothless and furless with closed eyes and ears. The mother raises her young by herself and by the time they are a month old, they begin to emerge from their burrow.  At this point they are about two-thirds the size of an adult chipmunk.  (Photo: female Eastern Chipmunk collecting leaves for her underground nest)

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Canadian Tiger Swallowtails Puddling

In April, during mud season, living on a dirt road can be a curse.  But in May and June, when swallowtails emerge, it can be a blessing as you often witness a phenomenon called “puddling.” This phenomenon consists of clusters of butterflies (predominantly males) gathering to obtain salts and minerals that have leached from the soil into standing puddles and moist dirt.

Because butterflies do not have chewing mouthparts they must drink their meals. While nectar is their main source of nutrition, males often supplement their diet with minerals. The sodium uptake aids in reproductive success, with precious nutrients often transferred from the male to the female during mating. This extra nutrition helps ensure that the eggs survive.

Pictured are Canadian Tiger Swallowtails puddling.  They are easily mistaken for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails as they look very much alike and their ranges overlap. To determine which you have seen, look at the underside of the butterfly’s forewing and see if the yellow band along the margin is solid and continuous (Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio canadensis), or if it is broken up into spots (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus).

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Purple Martins Nesting

In April, North America’s largest swallow, the Purple Martin, returns to New England to breed.  Nesting is now underway, and here in the East takes place almost exclusively in man-made colonial nest boxes.  Prior to 1900, woodpecker holes in snags were the preferred nesting sites, but now only Purple Martins in the West tend to seek them out (unlike Purple Martins in the East, they often are solitary nesters). Even though humans have provided housing which has increased their population, there is still considerable competition from European Starlings and House Sparrows.

When they are not raising a ruckus at their nests, the iridescent dark blue-purple male and duller female Purple Martins can be seen swooping and gliding in the air as they hunt their insect prey.  If there is a cold, rainy spell in the spring or early summer it can reduce their insect food supply and they can suffer great losses.

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Unusual Beaver Activity

Beavers are known for their ever-growing incisors which allow them to cut trees down, eat the cambium (a nutritious layer just beneath the bark) and cut what’s left into pieces they are able to haul and use as building material for dams and lodges. More often than not, it’s straight forward work.

Occasionally not every step is taken – you can find standing trees that had the bottom three or four feet (as high as the Beaver could reach) of cambium removed without the trees being felled.  You can find de-barked logs that have been left where they fell and not carried or floated to the dam or lodge as construction material.  It’s also not unusual to find standing trees where several times a Beaver has attempted but failed to cut all the way through.

Recently John Twomey brought to my attention a tree felled by Beavers unlike any other I’ve ever seen:  one or more Beavers had cut down a Paper Birch and eaten the cambium layer, leaving the tree clean of bark.  At some point they cut into the tree every 18 inches or so, not quite severing the pieces, but leaving them connected by a core of wood that ran the length of the tree. If any readers have seen anything similar to this, or if you have an idea as to why Beavers would have cut the tree in this fashion, Naturally Curious would love to hear from you.  (Photo by Prentice Grassi of his sons investigating said tree earlier this spring.)

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Jack & Jill-In-The-Pulpit

There are both male and female Jack-in-the-Pulpits, and nutrition determines which gender a given plant is.  For the first year or two, every Jack-in-the-Pulpit bears male flowers.  Then the amount of nutrients the plant takes up begins to influence the sex of the plant.  Females flowers produce seeds, and it takes a considerable amount of nutrients to do so.  Thus, if there’s an abundance of nutrients one summer, a plant is female the following summer; a lack of nutrients produces male Jack-in-the-Pulpits the following year.

While the flowers themselves are very distinct (females are green knobs, males are threadlike and not green), it can be hard to see them, as the spathe (pulpit) wraps around the spadix (Jack) which bears the flowers at its base. You can often guess the sex of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit by the number of leaves it has. In general, female plants produce two leaves, whereas male plants usually have only a single leaf.  If nutrients are really lacking, the plant typically produces a single leaf, but no Jack or pulpit. (Photo:  female Jack-in-the-Pulpit on the left; male Jack-in-the-Pulpit on the right).

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Why You Don’t Feed Birds In The Summer (if you live in bear country)

Unfortunately, habituated bears often have very short lives.  They lose their fear of humans, become “nuisance bears” and often end up being killed.  Do not worry about the birds that have been visiting your feeder all winter.  Your bringing your feeder in will not negatively affect them, as they get the majority of their food from natural sources.  Also, when birds are nesting many feed their young insects and aren’t frequent visitors to feeders. Feeding enables humans to get a close view of their winged neighbors, but it is not necessary for the birds’ welfare.

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Common Goldeneye Ducklings Fledging

Common Goldeneyes, also called “Whistlers” because of the noise their wings make in flight, are a boreal-nesting species of duck.  The eyes for which Common Goldeneyes are named have’t always been gold! They are gray-brown at hatching and turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By five months of age they have become clear pale green-yellow. Adult males have bright yellow eyes, and females pale yellow to white.

Like Wood Ducks, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes are cavity nesters.   When it’s time to fledge (24-36 hours after the young hatch), the female flies repeatedly to the nest hole, and eventually sits below the cavity calling to her precocial young. They jump from the nest in rapid succession, joining her in the water if the tree is on the shoreline, or on land (they nest up to 8/10ths of a mile from water) if not.

The young swim and feed with ease immediately, and are diving within one to two days of leaving the nest. The female protects them and broods them at night and during bad weather for the first few weeks.  Even so, up to 56% of the young perish during their first week of life due to weather and predation.  (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.)

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Miterwort Flowering

Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), also known as Bishop’s–cap, is named for the resemblance of its seed capsules to the hats (known as miters) worn by bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. If you examine a flower closely, you will see its delicate, 5-pointed, snowflake-like design. Each tiny flower is in the shape of a small cup, with dissected petals arising from the rim of the cup, resembling fine lacework. There is a glandular ring of nectar-producing tissue inside the cup which attracts small bees, flies and ants.

Once pollinated, the flowers produce open seed-containing capsules. Water, not animals, is the dispersal agent for Miterwort’s seeds. The capsules orient themselves so that their opening faces upward. When it rains, the falling rain drops splash the seeds out of the capsules, dispersing them up to three feet away from the parent plant.

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Hooded Merganser Ducklings On The Water

It’s hard to picture a duck flying straight into a cavity in a tree, but there are several species of waterfowl that do just that in order to incubate their eggs in a relatively safe location.  The female Hooded Merganser selects a nesting site in a living or dead tree cavity or in a handmade nest box. Once mating and egg-laying has occurred, the male disappears, leaving his mate to raise and care for their offspring.

Within 24 hours of her eggs hatching, the female calls to her young from the cavity opening or from the water below, encouraging them to leap up to the opening and hurl themselves out into the world. The entire brood departs the nest within a couple of minutes. As soon as they hit the water, the precocial young ducks are swimming, diving and feeding on water boatmen, backswimmers, diving beetles and other aquatic invertebrates.

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Spring Beauty Pollen-Specialists

We hear a lot about honey bees and other species of social bees (that live in colonies) pollinating crops and other flowering plants, but there is another, larger,  group of bees, called solitary (nesting) bees, which plays a significant role in pollinating plants.  These bees live alone, forage for pollen for their larvae and in the process pollinate vast numbers of flowers.

Mining bees make up one group of solitary bees.  They are small and nest individually in the ground.  One species of mining bee you often see on Spring Beauty is Andrena erigeniae.  Females are hairy and often loaded with Spring Beauty’s pink pollen.  Males are smaller, slimmer and less hairy. The thing that sets this species of mining bee apart is the fact that it is a “pollen-specialist” —  it collects pollen from only two plant species, Virginia (or Narrow-leaved) Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) and Carolina Spring Beauty (C. caroliniana).

Pollen from these blossoms is formed into balls and placed into underground brood chambers the female bee has dug with her jaws and legs. She deposits a single egg on each ball of pollen for the larva to eat when the egg hatches.  During the summer the larva pupates and by late autumn development of the adult is complete. Winter is spent in the adult stage within the brood chamber and the bee emerges in the spring just as Spring Beauty flowers.  Male and female bees emerge at roughly the same time and their mating, as well as their food collection, is said to take place on the flowers of Spring Beauty. (Photo:  male Andrena erigeniae on Carolina Spring Beauty)

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Muskrats Enjoying Fresh Greens

Muskrats remain active year-round and are, for the most part, nocturnal, so daytime sightings usually occur at dawn and dusk.  In the Northeast, Muskrats generally start breeding in June; this early in the spring they are busy foraging for the young, tender, green leaves of cattail that are just beginning to appear.  The stems, leaves, tubers, flowers and fruits of arrowhead, bulrush and water lilies are also among their favorite foods. To a lesser extent Muskrats also feed on snails, crayfish, frogs, turtles and fish.

Muskrats don’t eat while they swim.   Rather, they often nip off vegetation and seek a sheltered spot where they rest on their haunches and tail while holding it with their front feet as they feed. Note the Muskrat’s long nails, used for digging burrows and dens in river and pond banks as well as for holding food.

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Image

Happy Mother’s Day


Male and Female Tamarack Cones Maturing

Tamaracks, or American Larches (Larix laricina) are non-flowering plants (often found growing in bogs) that reproduce using seeds that are borne on the woody scales of cones.  Conifers (Tamarack is one of about 20 deciduous conifers, but the only one in New England) have both male and female cones.  The male cones produce pollen which is distributed by the wind and the female cones contain ovules which, when fertilized, develop seeds.

The male (pollen-bearing) cones look like little, round buttons (less than 1/5th of an inch wide), and consist of brown to yellowish pollen sacs with papery scales at their base. After maturing in early spring, they shed their pollen and then wither. The female cones of Tamarack are also small – less than ½ inch – and initially resemble tiny, maroon roses.  As in all conifers, the scales open temporarily to receive pollen, then close during fertilization and maturation, and then re-open again at maturity to allow the seed to escape.

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Mistaking My Mites

Today’s post photo is of a Red Velvet Mite (family Trombidiidae), not a Clover Mite!  Thanks to Avery for catching this!


Clover Mites

You may have come across a Clover Mite (Bryobia praetiosa) either on your lawn, in the woods or inside your house.  While they are closely related to ticks, there is no cause for alarm as they do not bite and are not harmful to humans.  These tiny, pin head-size mites feed on the sap of clover, grasses and roughly 200 other flowering plants.

All Clover Mites are female — they reproduce parthenogenetically and do not need males in order for their eggs to be viable. The (up to 70) eggs they lay and the larvae are bright red, while adults are reddish-brown. Clover Mites are extremely common this time of year, as well as in the fall.

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Snapping Turtles’ Extensive Reach

When you see a Snapping Turtle on land, its head is often only a few inches out of its shell, but don’t be fooled!  The length of its neck can be up to two-thirds the length of its shell and if threatened it can quickly extend its neck all the way out. (Keeping yourself out of reach is wise.  However, come June, when female Snapping Turtles often are found crossing roads when they leave their ponds to lay eggs, rescuing them from oncoming cars usually calls for close proximity to them. To hold and transport them (to the side of the road they were headed), just grab the back end of the shell, where their head can’t quite reach your hands.)

Their long neck allows Snapping Turtles to capture prey such as fish, frogs and crayfish from a distance.  When in shallow water, they can lie on the muddy bottom of the pond with only their heads occasionally exposed in order to take an occasional breath.  If you look closely at a Snapping Turtle’s head (see photo), you will see that their nostrils are positioned on the very tip of their snout, effectively functioning as snorkels.

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Male Hermit Thrushes Returning

During the past week a familiar and ethereal song has been emanating from nearby woodlands.  Male Hermit Thrushes have returned, as have their flute-like songs. These songs are made with a syrinx (not a larynx like humans have), an organ unique to birds. It is not much bigger than a raindrop in most birds and is extremely efficient, using nearly all the air that passes through it. (A human creates sound using only 2% of the air exhaled through the larynx.)

The syrinx is located where the trachea splits into two bronchial tubes. In songbirds, each side of the syrinx is independently controlled, allowing birds to produce two unrelated pitches (one from each half of its syrinx) simultaneously.  Hermit Thrushes can produce rising and falling notes at the same time, creating the melodious and haunting song that greets our ears early in the spring. This renowned songster can be heard at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hermit_Thrush/sounds

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Whirligig Beetles Active

Congratulations to Stein Feick, the first person to correctly identify the Mystery Photo as a Whirligig Beetle!  You usually see this aquatic beetle swimming around and around in circles on the surface of a pond searching for prey. A unique feature of most beetles in this genus is their divided eyes.  Each eye is completely separated into two portions (see photo). One portion (dorsal) is above the water line and the other (ventral) is beneath the water on each side of their head, allowing them to see both in the air/on the surface of the water as well as under the water.  The dorsal eyes have a limited field of view, so these beetles rest one of their antennae on the surface of the water to help them detect any motion caused by prey.

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Mystery Photo

Can you identify this Mystery Photo?  Hint:  In all likelihood if you’ve visited a pond, you have seen one.  If you think you might know what this creature is, go to the Naturally Curious blog site, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your guess.  The mystery will be solved on Wednesday, April 29th.

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An Ingenious Recycler

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects.  In the natural world, agents such as fungi and bacteria that turn dead plant and animal matter into air, water and nutrients come to mind.  If you broaden the definition of recycling to include the re-use of material, however, many more organisms come into play.

Some humans continue to feed birds in the spring after Black Bears have emerged from their dens.  The bears have not eaten for four or five months and once their digestive system adjusts, they are extremely hungry.  Available bird feeders are often raided by hungry bears at this time of year, and end up discarded on the forest floor with the seeds they contained ending up inside the bears’ stomachs.  Eventually the bears defecate and their feces contain little else but the husks of sunflower seeds interspersed with intact seeds.  Keen-eyed Black-capped Chickadees are very quick to take advantage of these recycled sources of protein.  (Check the Chickadee’s beak closely.)

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