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Mystery Photo

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A favorite past-time of many people who traverse woods and fields in winter is deciphering the tracks that they come across. Do you know who or what made this track? (Hint: diameter = 5”)

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A New Four-footed Companion

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As many of you may have heard, I lost my steadfast companion Emma in December. She had 14 good years, but it still seems like too short a life to me. We canoed, hiked, swam, traveled to programs and photographed together for many, many years, sharing close encounters with porcupines, moose, beavers, snowy owls and countless other creatures. You may have seen her in the background in some of my posts – wherever I went, she went. She would literally sit for hours while I photographed. I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.

I think Emma is looking out for me, as I have a 6th Labrador in my life now – her name is Greta. Her breeding days are over and the very kind breeders who owned Greta let me adopt her. She is five years old and one of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever known.  She is quickly learning to sit patiently while I photograph – a must for any dog I own! Now and then you may see a spot of yellow, not brown, in some of my posts!

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Hooded Mergansers On Open Water

1-29-18 hooded mergansers2 049A2217While many of New England’s Hooded Mergansers migrate and spend the winter on the coast, they can also be found inland this far north if there is open water and a good supply of slow-moving fish, insects and crayfish. Look for this elegant duck on small open bodies of freshwater, including ponds and rivers. The males have bold black and white markings including a striking crest, or “hood.” The females are more subtly colored, but in the right light, their golden cinnamon crests can rival the males.’

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Happy Groundhog Day !

2-2-18 woodchuck IMG_2381The Woodchuck, or Groundhog, is one lucky creature, considering past practices. The observation of “Groundhog Day” originated in the mid-1800’s, and by the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the celebration consisted of feasting on this rodent. A formalized hunt took place and participants then dined on Groundhog (which purportedly tastes like a cross between chicken and pork) and drank Groundhog punch. Since then, the Groundhog has evolved into a forecaster of weather, rather than a meal.

While New England Woodchucks are curled up in their hibernacula,  Punxsutawney Phil is busy seeing if he can see his shadow today (in which case we’re in for six more weeks of winter) or whether cloudy skies will prevent that from happening and spring is right around the corner. I’d bet on the former.

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Basic Botany: Bud, Leaf and Branch Arrangement

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In winter it is common to use the pattern by which branches and buds are arranged on a deciduous tree as a first, quick clue to the tree’s identity.  There are two large groups of trees, those with alternate and opposite patterns, and a third less common pattern, whorled.  Trees with alternate arrangement have only a single leaf/bud/branch attached at one location (node) on a branch.  Those with opposite arrangement have two leaves/buds/branches attached at a node, opposite one another on either side of the branch.  When more than two leaves/buds/branches arise from a node (rare) this is called a whorled arrangement.

At this time of year, when deciduous trees are bare, you can see the arrangement of buds, branches and leaf scars (where leaves have fallen off) clearly.  Relatively few trees have opposite branching – Maples, Ashes, Dogwoods, and Horse Chestnuts – while a majority have alternate branching.  More characteristics are needed to narrow a tree down to species, but noting its arrangement is an easy and quick way to eliminate certain species.

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Snow Flies Appearing

1-29-18 snow fly IMG_9481It always comes as a surprise to see tiny creatures moving nimbly over the surface of the snow. However, there are quite a few insects and spiders that do, thanks to the glycerol that they produce in their body fluids that keep them from freezing. The Snow Fly (Chionea sp.) is a type of wingless crane fly.  Most likely its lack of wings is due to the fact that at sub-freezing temperatures it would be very hard to generate enough energy for maintaining flight muscles. They (along with other flies, mosquitoes and gnats) do have two vestigial wings called halteres, the little knobs on the fly’s thorax. They inform true flies about the rotation of their body during flight, and are thought to act as sensory organs for the flightless Snow Flies.

Throughout most of the year Snow Flies can be found in leaf litter, but come winter the adults emerge, mate and lay up to 200 eggs. The lack of predators such as dragonflies and most insect-eating birds makes winter a relatively safe time for Snow Flies to be out and about. Their life span is about two months, during which time they drink by pressing their proboscis against the snow, but they don’t eat.   (Snow Fly in photograph is a female, measuring less than ½”.)

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What Goes On Beneath Our Feet In Winter

Alfred's mouse2 2018-01-16 20.39.08 (003)It’s fairly unusual to see Deer or White-footed Mice, especially in the winter – they are nocturnal and they spend much of their time in the airspace under the snow next to the ground known as the subnivean layer. (A blanket of snow traps the earth’s heat, which melts the bottom of the snow, creating this layer of space.) Here both Deer Mice and White-footed Mice travel extensively, protected from both the cold (it stays within a degree or two of 32 F. regardless of outside temperature) and the eyes of predators. On cold winter days, groups including both species of mice keep warm by huddling in a common nest. (Photo of White-footed/Deer Mouse – extremely difficult to tell the difference by sight – by Alfred Balch.)

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