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Male Red-bellied Woodpeckers Calling & Tapping To Attract Mate

One of the best ways to determine if Red-bellied Woodpeckers have chosen to nest nearby is the presence of their persistent and distinctive “kwirr” call.  It is given most often now, during the breeding season, when males try to attract a mate to their roost cavity or a partially completed excavation by calling to them.  Drumming and soft taps are also performed by males as part of the courtship ritual. 

When attracted, the female flies to the male and indicates her acceptance of his cavity by perching beside him while they both engage in tapping behavior. If the cavity is partially completed, the mutual tapping behavior also appears to stimulate the female to help the male finish excavating the cavity. (Photo: male Red-bellied Woodpecker at nest hole; inset: male (left) and female (right) tapping at nest hole.)

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Black Bears Waking Up & Ejecting Fecal Plugs

Black Bears spend their entire hibernation with what is referred to as a “fecal plug” in the last foot or so of their intestines. Scientists used to theorize that bears ate lots of roughage and indigestible plant material in order to form this plug that essentially prevents them from evacuating all winter. This theory has been proven wrong, as investigation has shown that the fecal plug consists mainly of intestinal secretions and cells that have sloughed off the inside of the digestive tract. After stopping eating in late fall, bears do produce a small amount of feces, which are in the plug along with hair and leafy bedding, both accumulated from increased grooming (licking of fur and then swallowing) that takes place before entering hibernation. During winter bears shed the calloused soles, or footpads, of their feet and it’s not uncommon to find pieces of them in a plug, as well.

Most fecal plugs measure 1 ½” to 2 ½” in diameter and 7”-15″ long. Fluids have been absorbed from the plug by the intestinal walls, leaving it relatively dry and hard. Its light scent is reminiscent of fermentation. Should you be fortunate enough to find a plug, it’s likely you’re quite close to its owner’s overwintering den, as bears eject their plug soon after emerging from hibernation. (Many thanks to Metta McGarvey and Stephen Brown for sharing their 9″ x 2″ fecal plug with me.)

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Northern Leopard Frogs Emerging From Hibernation And Males Are Starting To “Snore”

Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs and a variety of salamanders steal the early bird show when it comes to amphibians, but now other species are beginning to appear, including Northern Leopard Frogs which are emerging from the mud at the bottom of the ponds, marshes and streams where they spent the winter.  These frogs migrate to their breeding grounds soon after becoming active and before long the males’ sonorous courtship calls will be heard. 

During the breeding season males advertise on land and in the water for females with a hoarse snore-like croak followed by two or more clucks.  A chorus of them can be fairly deafening. Both males and females also give aggressive calls, males when grasped by another male and females when grasped by a male after they have finished laying their eggs.

To hear a male Northern Leopard Frog’s mating call, go to  https://musicofnature.com/calls-of-frogs-and-toads-of-the-northeast/  and scroll down. It’s as distinctive as the Spring Peeper’s “peep” or the Wood Frog’s “quack.”

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Red Maples Flowering

Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are celebrated in the fall for their vibrant foliage, but they produce equally vibrant reds and yellows in early spring when they are flowering. Most Red Maples have dense clusters of either male flowers or female flowers (dioecious). Under certain conditions, a Red Maple tree can sometimes switch from male to female, male to both male and female (hermaphroditic), and hermaphroditic to female.

The showier male, or staminate, flowers contain between four and twelve stamens, with long, slender filaments and red (young) or yellow (mature) anthers at their tips. Both red sepals and petals can be seen at the base of the stamens.  A staminate Red Maple in full bloom is a blaze of gold and red. (Photo: mature staminate Red Maple flowers)

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Killdeer Returning To Breeding Grounds

Killdeer are among the first migratory birds to return in the spring. Finding food this time of year can be challenging for this member of the Plover family, especially with the temperature fluctuations we’ve been having, so the Killdeer’s broad diet of invertebrates (grasshoppers, earthworms, beetles and snails, among others) serves it well.  When foraging, a Killdeer will often pat the ground or mud in shallow water with one quivering foot in hopes of scaring up a meal. 

Active both day and night, you can often hear their “kill-deer” call overhead at night, especially in early spring and in late summer.  If you live in or near a town, you may well observe them foraging at night over parking lots and lighted ball fields. 

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Woolly Bears Awake, Feeding & Soon To Pupate

Isabella Tiger Moths (we call their larvae Woolly Bears) are one of the few moths or butterflies that overwinter as caterpillars. In the fall they produce a chemical which acts like anti-freeze and protects them against damage from freezing and thawing. The caterpillars remain curled up in a protected spot, such as in leaf litter or under loose bark, nearly frozen solid all winter.

When spring arrives and the temperature reaches the high 40’s and 50’s they become active again, feed for a few days, and then pupate inside a cocoon made with their own bristles. Adult Isabella Tiger Moths emerge in about a month, anywhere between April and June, mate, and lay eggs. Within two weeks the eggs hatch. In New England a second generation of woolly bears will be produced and these are the larvae that overwinter.

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Which One Doesn’t Belong?

When you find a large flock of migrating Canada Geese, examine them closely — you can often find a goose of a different species hanging out with them. In this case, a Snow Goose (blue morph) was in a flock of several hundred Canada Geese.  Its white head made it an easy discovery.

 Perhaps injury, loss of a mate, or disorientation encouraged the lone goose to join a large flock of another species in order to have an easier time of finding food or avoiding predators.  Whatever the reason, it’s always fun to come across one of these loners.

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Amphibians On The Move

According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Project (https://www.vtherpatlas.org), the recent warm rain triggered a significant movement of many amphibians in the Lake Champlain Basin as they left their hibernation sites and migrated towards their breeding grounds.  Blue-spotted Salamanders (& hybrids), Four-toed Salamanders, Spotted Salamanders, Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, Eastern Newts, Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs were among those seen emerging from their hibernacula.  

Keep your eyes peeled on warm (40°+), rainy evenings and see if you discover a popular amphibian road- crossing location.  Check local resources to see if there is a local volunteer group that assists these slow-moving migrants across the road. If not, you could start one yourself – be sure to wear reflective clothing, have a flashlight and report your findings to a local nature center or conservation organization. (Photo: Blue-spotted Salamander by Erin Talmage)

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Northern Harrier

One of the easier hawks to identify in flight, Northern Harriers sport a white rump at the base of their tail which is readily visible as they glide low over fields and marshes seeking prey. 

Unlike other hawks, Northern Harriers possess an owl-like facial disc of short, stiff feathers which direct sound towards the bird’s ears; they use their sense of hearing as well as their acute vision to locate small mammals and songbirds. Another distinction between Northern Harriers and most hawks is their sexual dimorphism – males are grey and females brown.  (Photo: juvenile female Northern Harrier – note dark brown eyes which will become yellow with age)

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Spring Has Sprung!

March is the absolute high point in anyone’s life who anticipates and celebrates the annual celebration of the arrival of spring.  For this reason, it is the first chapter in my book “Naturally Curious” – every day brings confirmation that no matter what is going on in the human world, you can depend on the natural world to observe the rites of spring. 

Mourning Cloak butterflies emerge from behind loose bark, migrating American Woodcock probe the mud, sleepy Eastern Chipmunks appear above ground, Red-winged Blackbirds return, Beavers see the sun for the first time in perhaps months, buds swell with newly accessible sap, Red Fox kits emerge from dens, Wild Turkeys mate, Spring Peepers peep, Painted Turtles emerge from hibernation and bask in the sun, Ruffed Grouse drum and Skunk Cabbage blooms. 

For at least a few minutes a day, we can lose ourselves in the natural rhythm of life that surrounds us.

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