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Species Specific Nests

Snow falling on abandoned bird nests forms distinctive white caps that are easy to detect. Because the builders of these nurseries are long gone, most with no intention of re-using their nest, we are afforded a unique opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of them.

There are many clues that help to identify the builder of a nest — habitat, size, and material used being the most obvious. A given species of bird builds a nest that greatly resembles the nest of every other member of that species, and builds it in a similar habitat. Thus, every American Goldfinch nest bears a strong resemblance to every other American Goldfinch nest, every Gray Catbird nest looks like every other Gray Catbird nest, etc. The two American Goldfinch nests pictured were both located in overgrown fields, they are both roughly three inches wide and a little over that in depth, and both are made of fine fibers and lined with thistle and cattail down.

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The Origin Of Christmas Tree Candles And Lights

Unlike the cones of most conifers, those of Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) don’t hang down but grow upright.  After their first year, the cones mature, seeds ripen and both the seeds and scales of the cones drop to the ground, leaving woody spikes standing at attention.  It’s considered likely that these spikes, when snow-covered, inspired Germans to decorate their Christmas trees with candles and lights.

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Great Blue Heron Tracks In Snow

The number of Great Blue Heron sightings in northern New England starts to diminish in the fall and by late December most of these birds have departed for the coast or more southerly locations where open water is more of a sure thing.  Some do linger, however, even through the winter, if they can find open water. 

While it’s not unusual to find Great Blue Heron tracks in the mud along the shores of ponds and lakes in warmer weather, it’s a bit more unusual (and unexpected) to come across their tracks in the snow. Unfortunately, the maker of the pictured tracks found ice had formed between it and its potential meal.

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Cedar Waxwings: Voracious Fruit Lovers

Cedar Waxwings are among the most frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds in North America.  During the winter their diet is almost completely fruit.  Historically cedar berries (hence their name) were the fruit of choice, and still is where cedars are plentiful, but ornamental fruit trees such as Mountain Ash, crabapples, and hawthorns as well as alien honeysuckles have become a major source of food for Cedar Waxwings in recent years in the Northeast. 

Research shows that in May an abrupt change in waxwing diet composition occurs, with fruit dropping to about 15% of their diet, while flowers comprise 44%. In June, frugivory spikes back up to about 65% as current-season fruits ripen, and fruit use progressively rises for the remainder of the summer until it nears 100% for several winter months. (Photo: Cedar Waxwing eating Common Winterberry fruit)

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Winter Bogs: A Profusion of Reds

Typically the low-growing vegetation found in northern bogs would be hidden under a blanket of snow at this time of year, but thanks in part to climate change we can still admire the fall crimson-, scarlet- and claret-colored plants of these acidic wetlands well into winter.  Pitcher plants, cranberry and sphagnum moss create a mosaic of textures and colors seemingly designed for the coming holidays.

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Signs of Gray Squirrel Nest-Building

Gray Squirrels use cavity and leaf nests throughout the year. Both types of nests are retreats used as shelter from the elements and protection from predators, as well as rodent-rearing homes.  Signs of nest-building are plentiful at this time of year, when cold weather is around the corner. Evidence of this activity is present in the form of leafy ball nests (dreys) in trees as well as bare branches discarded on the ground that have had their bark stripped off and shredded.  Squirrels line their nests with dried grasses, lichen and the soft fibers they remove from branches.

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Evening Grosbeak Irruption Taking Place

Two years ago there was a massive irruption of Evening Grosbeaks across eastern North America.  This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted a similar southward movement of these big-beaked finches this year and it has begun to be realized.  Evening Grosbeaks have been spotted throughout southern Canada, New York and New England and even further south – a welcome sight for all, as Evening Grosbeak populations have declined by 92% in the past 50 years, the steepest decline of any land bird in the continental U.S. or Canada, and sighting one has become a rarity.

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Black Bears Still Active

Black Bears often enter into hibernation in November, but their exact timing depends in large part on the weather as well as the availability of food such as hard mast (acorns, beechnuts, etc.).  Cold temperatures and scarce food hastens their entry, and warm weather and ample food delays it.

As long as bears are active (and they still are in the Northeast due in part to relatively warm weather), one would be wise to delay feeding birds. Even though a Black Bear’s metabolic rate during hibernation can drop to a quarter of its (nonhibernating) basal metabolic rate, it still needs to put on a considerable amount of fat (some bears double their weight) in order to sustain itself while it fasts through the winter.

A pre-hibernation feeding frenzy by Black Bears is why putting up bird feeders prematurely (before Black Bears hibernate) is discouraged by most northern Fish & Wildlife Departments.  If a bear comes upon a filled bird feeder it is very likely to return to it repeatedly until it goes into hibernation. A Black Bear’s memory is very impressive and most are unable to resist a free lunch.  If you can’t put off feeding the birds for another few weeks, it’s a good idea to bring feeders inside at night if you live in bear country. 

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Mimic Makers

Biomimicry, which refers to innovations by humans that are inspired by nature, happens to be one of my favorite topics, and I particularly love introducing the concept to children.  Occasionally I come across a natural history book which is so compelling that I want to share it with Naturally Curious readers, especially at a gift-giving time of year.  Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature by Kristen Nordstrom is one of these books.  

Written for elementary school readers, it engagingly presents ten “mimic makers” who come up with technological inventions based on the natural world (leaf-inspired solar panels, beetle-inspired water collectors, maple seed-inspired drones, etc.).  It’s biomimicry at its very best, guaranteed to captivate young (and not so young), inquisitive minds. (Photo: Red Maple seeds/samaras)

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