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Poplar Petiole Galls

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Adult Common Loons Molting & Migrating

At this time of year, adult Common Loons are undergoing a partial molt, during which they transition from their striking black-and-white breeding plumage into their gray-and-white winter plumage. This transition typically begins with the feathers surrounding the bill.

Many adult loons have departed from their northern freshwater breeding lakes, heading for their coastal New England wintering grounds.  Juvenile loons linger, sometimes remaining on their natal or adjacent lakes until near freeze-up.  Once they arrive on their wintering grounds, they will remain there for the next two to four years before returning to their inland breeding grounds. (Photo: adult Common Loon in foliage-reflecting water)

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Newly-hatched Bumble Bees Resting At Night Before Foraging & Mating During The Day

At this time of year bumble bee larvae develop into virgin queens and males instead of the female workers that hatch during the summer.  Chances are if you take an early morning walk when fall temperatures are starting to drop, you may come across one of the male bumble bees in an immobile state resting on a goldenrod or aster flower. Having spent the night here due to cold temperatures (their flight muscles must be above 86°F in order for them to take flight and their thorax must be maintained during flight at 86-104°F), they use their wing muscles in the morning to shiver and raise their temperature until they are capable of flight.

Young queens are visible during the day, but return to the hive for shelter during the night.  Once they have mated and are fertilized they fill their honey sacs with honey and seek shelter for the winter several inches underground.  They are the only members of the hive to overwinter; all others perish in the fall. (Photo: male bumble bee resting on New England Aster early one fall morning.)

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Red-bellied Woodpeckers Eating & Caching Acorns

Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a wide-ranging diet consisting of nuts, fruits, frogs, minnows, nestling birds, songbird eggs, invertebrates, sap and nectar. At this time of year, acorns are a preferred food. While woodpeckers are well known for their ability to use their bills to drill into trees in order to extract insects, their use of their bills to extract the meat of nuts is less well-known.  Often they will pluck an acorn off an oak and fly with it in their bill to a tree or post where they press it into a crevice. They then crack the shell of the acorn by hammering it with their bill, after which they extract the nutmeat.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers cache food throughout the entire year, but engage in this behavior more often during the fall.  They return to their cached food throughout the winter. When you see a Red-bellied Woodpecker carrying something in its bill this time of year, follow its flight.  If the bird happens to land, see if it tries to put the item in the crack of a tree or into a crevice.  The list of items stored by this woodpecker includes acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits, fruit pulp, kernels of corn, suet, peanut butter, whole peanuts, and even insects. (Photo: male Red-bellied Woodpecker with Red Oak acorn)

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Witch Hazel Flowering & Dispersing Seeds

Long after most bird songs have ceased, summer’s flowers have turned to seed, and leaves are starting to fall, a woodland shrub, Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, brightens the landscape with its tiny, golden blossoms.  At this exact same time, Witch Hazel flowers that were pollinated a year ago and fertilized this past spring have developed capsules that are dispersing two black seeds, shooting them up to thirty feet away from the parent plant, making audible popping sounds as they open and eject the seeds.  This dual-purpose timing of both flowering and seed dispersal is a feast for both eyes and ears every autumn for those fortunate enough to locate a shrub and time their visit perfectly.

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Gray Dogwood A Bird Magnet In The Fall

Due to its ability to reproduce clonally (asexually), Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) often occurs in thickets – you rarely see one shrub all by itself.  In the fall it is the first of several species of dogwood to have its fruit ripen; as a result Gray Dogwoods are magnets for birds, including migrants, and is visited by over 100 species.  Its red fruit stems (panicles) persist long after the fruit has been eaten and leaves have fallen, providing a noticeable splash of color well into the fall.  (Photo: Red-eyed Vireo feeding on Gray Dogwood berries)

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2022 Naturally Curious Calendar Orders Can Be Placed

Orders for the 2022 Naturally Curious Calendar can be placed now by writing to me at 505 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT  05482. The calendars are printed on heavy card stock and measure 11” x 17” when hanging. There is one full-page photograph 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 let you know I received your order and can 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 1st. 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 (after the deadline) in past years that I have not been able to fill all of the orders, so if you want to be sure of having your order filled, I encourage you to place your order before November 1st. I hate to disappoint anyone.)  Calendars will arrive at your door in early December well in time for the New Year. Thank you so much! (Monthly photos: Cover-snowy owl; January-bald eagle; February-river otter; March-wood ducks; April-red foxes; May-mating cecropia moths; June-moose bog; July-dogbane beetle; August-eastern cottontail; September-eastern chipmunk & beechnuts; October-pileated woodpecker; November-beaver; December-snowy owl.


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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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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Monarch Roosts

Monarch migration is in full swing.  Some of the migrating butterflies from the Northeast travel as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter destination in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.  In addition to finding sources of nectar along their migration pathways to build their fat reserves Monarchs must also seek shelter at night, roosting on land when it cools down and they can no longer fly. 

It appears that roosting is critical for migrating Monarch survival.  Just before dark these solitary diurnal migrants gather in clusters called roosts. A roost can consist of just a few butterflies up to thousands clinging to leaves and branches on a single tree. Cedar, fir, and pine are common species of trees used for roosts, but deciduous trees are also used.

Most roosting trees are along a principal flyway, located in a cool, moist area, provide shelter from the wind and are near a source of nectar. Often roosts last for only a night or two but can last a week or two. Monarchs can but do not necessarily use the same resting sites year after year. It’s generally accepted that these roosts are an anti-predation tactic, employing the strategy of safety in numbers.  To see a map of documented 2021 roosts, go to Journey North’s site:  https://maps.journeynorth.org/map/?map=monarch-roost-fall&year=2021.

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Grey Squirrel Bonanza

The diet of the Gray Squirrel is extremely varied — from the cambium beneath tree bark, to tree buds, flowers and seeds, mushrooms, fruits, insects, frogs, bird eggs and much more.  This year there appears to be a bountiful crop of American Beech nuts and Gray Squirrels will likely have a banner reproductive season next spring and summer as a result of it. Consisting of roughly 50% fat and 20% protein, American Beech nuts are one of the most nutritious seeds to be found. (Acorns are only about 9% protein.)

Historically, beechnuts were a popular food source in both Europe and America.  Raw they contain the toxin saponin glycoside, which can cause gastric issues if you eat a large number, but if you’re willing to remove the husks and let the inner nuts dry for several weeks before roasting them, beechnuts can be a tasty delight.  Many recipes – from beechnut pie to muffins and stew – can be found on the Internet.

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Common Green Darners Mating & Laying Eggs

Darners are a family of dragonflies whose members are quite large (some over three inches in length).  Common Green Darners (Anax junius) are one of only two darners in the Northeast with an entirely green thorax (section between head and abdomen).  Often you find them perching low in grasses and weeds.  Males tend to fly along the shorelines of ponds, patrolling for females and keeping other males at bay. 

After mating takes place, the males of some species of dragonflies disappear.  In other species, the male stays nearby, guarding the female and fending off other males that might remove the initial suitor’s sperm and replace it with their own.  Some species go to the extreme of remaining attached to each other while egg-laying takes place.  Common Green Darners are the only species of darner that often lays in this manner – in tandem, with the male still clasping the female while she submerges her abdomen and lays her eggs in aquatic vegetation (pictured).

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Berkeley’s Polypore Fruiting

Polypores are a group of fungi that bear their spores in tubes, or pores, rather than gills. One of the largest mushrooms to fruit on living trees is Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi), often found on hardwoods, especially on oak trees. Its growth is unusual in both size and form.  When the fruiting body starts to emerge, it resembles a giant hand with short, fat fingers. The tips of the “fingers” expand into huge, flat, fan-like shapes up to ten inches wide that together form an irregular rosette.  The rosette can be more than three feet across and can weigh up to 30 pounds.

You usually find this fungus at the base of trees, but it can fruit from the ground far from any tree if there are roots or the remnants of an old stump beneath the ground, for it is saprophytic (lives on dead or decaying trees) as well as parasitic.

Berkeley’s Polypore is edible when it is young. With age, the fruiting body becomes increasingly tough and has been compared to eating cardboard.  It goes without saying that one should be sure of the identity of any fungus before consuming it.  (Photo of Berkeley’s Polypore & Leo Clifford by Lawrence Clifford.)

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The Surprisingly Varied Diet of Beavers

It is common knowledge that beavers are herbivorous but the extent of their herbivory is not always appreciated.  Examining their skull would tell you that their massive four front incisors (as well as the muscles attached to their jaws) are designed to do some serious chewing.  And serious chewing does take place, especially in the fall. Poplars, birches, alders, willows, maples and many other deciduous trees as well as a few conifers are felled in order to reach and consume the inner bark, or cambium layer. (The de-barked logs and branches are subsequently used to repair dams and lodges). Not only do Beavers need to meet their daily nutritional needs but they must cut enough trees to last them through the winter.

However as spring approaches and they can access land, their diet changes from the woody branches they’ve been eating all winter (from their winter food pile under the water) to a diet that consists mainly of herbaceous plants. Ninety percent of their time is spent eating non-woody plants, often skunk cabbage, water lily rhizomes and grasses in the early spring.  As summer progresses, they seek out aquatic plants, ferns, sedges and a variety of flowering plants. Usually it’s not until late summer/early fall that their incisors are once again given a good workout.

The pictured Beaver had the good fortune of having a large patch of tasty Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) growing on and adjacent to its lodge.

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Black-crowned Night Herons: Not Your Typical Heron

When you think of a heron, you usually think of a diurnal wading bird that has long legs, a long neck and a long bill.  Black-crowned Night Herons don’t possess any of these familial characteristics.  Stocky and relatively short-legged and short-billed, these herons typically rest during the day and start actively hunting at dusk, continuing through the night.

Prey includes fish (half their diet) plus a wide range of other creatures including leeches, earthworms, insects, crayfish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, birds and frogs. The manner in which a Black-crowned Night Heron lures and captures its prey varies.  Two of its most intriguing fishing techniques include bill vibrating (opening and closing its bill rapidly in the water to attract prey) and bait fishing – using bait to attract fish.

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Wavy-lined Emerald Moth Caterpillar: Master of Disguise

Caterpillars are subject to extreme predation, especially by birds.  A single pair of breeding Black-capped Chickadees must find 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of young, according to Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. Insects contain more protein than beef and 96% of North American land birds feed them to their young.

It’s thus not surprising that caterpillars have evolved a number of impressive survival strategies, including resembling bird droppings and looking/acting like branches and leaves waving in the breeze.  The Wavy-lined Emerald Moth (Synchlora aeratalarva) larva, or caterpillar, uses camouflage as well, but goes about achieving it in a slightly different way; it attaches bits of the plant tissue (often flowers) on which it is feeding onto its back, so that it blends in to its surroundings very effectively. Totally camouflaged, the caterpillar can munch away in relative safety, replacing dead petals with live ones when necessary.

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Rabbit Ears: Double Duty

The first thing you notice about a rabbit is its oversized ears which, as one might guess, enhance its ability to hear. The two ears can move independently of each other and can be rotated 270 degrees.

In addition to being designed to catch sound from any direction, rabbit ears regulate a rabbit’s body temperature. There is a very extensive network of blood vessels in a rabbit’s ears that provide a large surface area for heat exchange. These vessels swell (vasodilation) when the rabbit is hot, and contract (vasoconstriction) when it is cool, so much so that they are barely visible in cold weather. In the summer, the increased circulation of warm blood from the body’s core to the rabbit’s ears, where heat is lost to the cooler surrounding air, provides internal air-conditioning for the rabbit. (Photo: Eastern Cottontail)

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Ebony Jewelwings

Damselflies, smaller and more delicate versions of dragonflies, are predatory aerial insects found near streams and wetlands. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryzx maculata) damselfly is aptly named.  Its pure black wings (the only dragonfly or damselfly in the Northeast with entirely black wings) and iridescent green head and abdomen are a striking combination.  The female lacks the iridescence of the male and its wings are dark but not quite black, with a distinct white spot (pterostigma) at the outer edge of both forewings. 

Ebony Jewelwings only live about two weeks.  During much of this time they can be found resting on leaves or branches in sunny spots of the forest, often near the slow-moving stream in which they spent their youth (most dragonfly and damselfly larvae are aquatic).

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Northern Mockingbirds Wing-flashing

Occasionally one comes across animal behavior that has yet to be understood by humans.  If you watch Northern Mockingbirds for any length of time, especially females, you are likely to see them stop and raise their wings half to fully open, in several progressively higher jerky movements.  When they do this, their white wing patches are fully exposed. 

Ornithologists are not of one mind as to what this behavior achieves. Perhaps it is anti-predator behavior – an attempt to scare would-be nest raiders away.  It could be a way of startling insects enough to make them move and thus easier to see and catch.  It also could be a form of territorial display/defense. Interestingly, mockingbird species that lack the white wing patches also engage in this behavior.

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Snapping Turtle Seeking Sandy Soil In Which To Lay Eggs

Monday’s Mystery Photo leaves no doubt that Naturally Curious readers are among the most informed nature interpreters out there. There were many correct answers, but congratulations go to Susan Cloutier, who was the first to identify the tracks and diagnostic wavy line left by the tail of a female Snapping Turtle as she traveled overland seeking sandy soil in which to lay her eggs. The turtle eventually found a suitable spot, dug several holes and chose one in which to deposit her roughly 30 eggs, covered them with soil and immediately headed back to her pond, leaving her young to fend for themselves if and when they survive to hatch in the fall.

Unfortunately, there is little guarantee that the eggs will survive. Skunks (the main predators), raccoons, foxes and mink have all been known to dig turtle eggs up within the first 24 hours of their being laid and eat them, leaving tell-tale scattered shells exposed on the ground. Fortunately, Snapping Turtles live at least 47 years, giving them multiple chances to have at least one successful nesting season. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.)

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Mystery Photo

Can you identify these tracks and traces?  Hint:  mostly seen in the month of June. Please go to the Naturally Curious blog site, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your answer. Identity of track-maker will be revealed in July 2nd post.

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Mourning Cloak Caterpillars Pupating

Having overwintered as an adult, the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) is one of the first butterflies seen in early spring.  Mating takes place and eggs are laid in a cluster encircling a twig of a willow, cottonwood, elm, birch or hackberry tree.  The hatching caterpillars stay together until they move off their host plant to pupate, which is what is happening right now and why you can find these distinctive spiny black and red caterpillars at this time of year. Adult Mourning Cloaks emerge in midsummer, enter a state of dormancy until fall and then seek a sheltered spot in which to hibernate until spring. 

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Parental Feeding Techniques of the Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons are colonial nesters – a rookery can have hundreds (up to 500) of nests, usually in dead snags, with one, two or three nests in a single snag.  Because the chicks are in the nest for roughly two months before fledging, their interactions with both parents, especially when food is delivered to the nest, has been observed and well documented.

Newly hatched chicks peck at the adult’s bill, the nest and each other. Initially the adult returns to the nest  where it stands on the rim and regurgitates food into the open bills of the chicks.  The chicks get quite proficient at grabbing the adult’s bill and pulling it into the nest as soon as the parent returns.  As the chicks age, the adult often regurgitates onto the floor of the nest and the chicks eat it.  When the nestlings are about a month old, they take food directly from their parents.

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