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Mystery Photo

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What are these holes and who made them?  Please post your answers on Naturally Curious website under “Comments.”

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Dutchman’s Breeches Corms

5-16-17 dutchman's breeches corms IMG_9125Dutchman’s Breeches has corms similar to Squirrel Corn, but they are pink, not yellow!

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Squirrel Corn Vs. Dutchman’ s Breeches

5-16-17 squirrel corn 130There are two white spring wildflowers that have nearly identical dissected leaves, are both suspended in multiple numbers from a single stalk, and have petals that form long spurs within which nectar is located. Their names are Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis). Although Dutchman’s Breeches usually flowers a week or so earlier than Squirrel Corn, they can both be found flowering now.

As their name implies, Dutchman’s Breeches flowers are shaped like tiny pantaloons hanging from a wash line. Squirrel Corn is a close relative of Dutchman’s Breeches. If you look closely you will see that Squirrel Corn flowers have no yellow “waistband” like Dutchman’s Breeches, and their spurs are more rounded, giving the flower more of a heart shape. Squirrel Corn is named for the yellow underground corms, or storage structures, on its roots which are shaped a bit like corn kernels, absent in Dutchman’s Breeches.

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Barred Owls Parents Tending Chicks

5-12-17 adult owl in nest hole 241For about a month the female Barred Owl sits on her 1-5 eggs (usually 2 or 3) until her white, downy chicks hatch, usually around the end of April or beginning of May. At about two weeks (mid-May) their natal down is being replaced by a white-tipped gray-buff secondary down, and primary feathers are beginning to grow in.  They remain in their cavity nest for their first month.

It is pretty safe to assume that the adult owl in this photograph is a female as she is in constant attendance during the chicks’ first two weeks. The male brings her food which she tears into little bits so the chicks can swallow it. At the beginning of the third week, the female begins leaving the nest frequently to hunt. When she is at the nest, she often takes breaks from the kids and sits at the entrance surveying her surroundings.  At this point the chicks start consuming prey (that is delivered to them) on their own. In a week or two the chicks will also start appearing at the cavity entrance.  By their fourth or fifth week, the still-flightless chicks will leave the nest, but parental provision of food continues until fall.

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Happy Mother’s Day!

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Trinity Flower

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Purple Trillium, Large-flowered Trillium and Painted Trillium all flower in the month of May. Another name for trilliums is Trinity Flower, referring to the plant’s parts which are arranged in three’s or in multiple of threes. Three leaves, three sepals, three petals, six stamens, three stigmas and an ovary that has three compartments. (Photo: Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum)

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Squirrels Digging For False Truffles

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Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark!  To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.

Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.

As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.

Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.

It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)

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