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Sapsuckers & Hummingbirds

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The Morse Code tapping of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers has just started reverberating in northern New England woodlands once again – a sure sign of spring. There is an interesting relationship between sapsuckers and hummingbirds, with hummingbirds reaping most of the benefits.   It is thought that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird may time its migration north to coincide with that of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in some areas. In northern New England, hummingbirds arrive on their breeding grounds about a month after sapsuckers, insuring that sapsucker-drilled sap wells will be waiting for them. The reason this is important is that these wells are an important source of nutrients (both sap and insects attracted to it) for hummingbirds as well as sapsuckers.  In addition, and not surprisingly, hummingbirds often place their nest near sap wells. This affinity for sap continues well past the nesting season – – hummingbirds have been observed following sapsuckers throughout summer days. (Photo:  male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & male Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

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Wood Ducks Returning

4-7-17 wood ducks 288Among the first groups of birds to move north in the spring are waterfowl. Many ducks, geese, and swans begin migrating as soon as frozen lakes and marshes start to thaw. Although an occasional Wood Duck is spotted in northern New England during the colder months, most winter further south (band recoveries indicate that in eastern U.S. about one-third of Wood Ducks are permanent residents and the others are migratory). They begin to be seen in open water in February and March but it is April before their numbers really swell, and sometimes it seems that on every stream and in every flooded field you can find at least one pair. With their distinctive plumage, it’s hard to miss them, especially the males. Soon they will be seeking out natural cavities in trees, including Pileated Woodpecker holes, in which to nest.

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Woodland Recycler

4-7-17 chickadee on scat 116The ability to find food is crucial for all creatures.  It involves looking in every potential location, including the waste material of other animals.  Nothing goes to waste in the natural world, and I was fortunate to observe an example of this recycling phenomenon recently in bear-inhabited woodlands.

Even though feeding birds is discouraged at this time of year due to the seeds’ appeal to hungry, emerging Black Bears, many find it a hard habit to stop. Inevitably Black Bears will smell the seeds in feeders and help themselves to them.  If this continues long enough, the bears will become habituated and eventually this can lead to their being considered a nuisance, which can lead to their demise. Thus, it’s best to stop feeding birds now that Black Bears have emerged from hibernation.

That said, those who continue to fill feeders in the spring and have had them raided by bears need not fear that their birds are without recourse should they find the feeders empty or missing. Much of what goes in comes out, and bears deposit their seed-laden scat throughout the woods, creating ground “feeders” for all kinds of creatures. In this instance, a Black-capped Chickadee repeatedly helped itself to uncracked sunflower seeds amongst a great deal of millet and sunflower seed husks in the scat of a Black Bear.

This post is dedicated to Sadie Brown, Solid Waste & Recycling Coordinator for the town of Melrose, MA.

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Boxelder Bugs Active

4-6-17 boxelder bugs 095You may have noticed ½-inch-long black insects with red markings emerging from cracks and crevices inside or outside your home with the recent arrival of warmer weather. These are adult Boxelder Bugs that have been hibernating all winter and have become active with the warming days. They may disappear on days such as today when the weather turns cold again, but they’ll emerge for good in late April or May, just about the time buds on Boxelder trees are beginning to open.

During the spring and early summer they seek out and feed on low vegetation and seeds on the ground. Starting in mid‑July, they move to female seed-bearing Boxelder trees (or occasionally other maple or ash trees) where they lay eggs on trunks, branches, and leaves.  Red nymphs hatch in roughly two weeks, and proceed, like their parents, to feed on Boxelder foliage and seeds by using their piercing-sucking mouthparts. Even if their numbers are large, there is no noticeable feeding injury to these trees.   Come fall both adults and nymphs congregate in large numbers on the south side of trees, buildings and rocks exposed to the sun (only adults survive the winter) before settling in a protected hibernaculum. Boxelder Bugs are most abundant during hot, dry summers followed by warm springs. They do not bite people and are essentially harmless to property.  (Photo: adult Boxelder Bugs in spring; insert – adults and nymphs in fall) Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.

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“Naturally Curious” Blog Celebrates Seven Years!

4-4-17 - loons 203Seven years ago today, after my book Naturally Curious was published, this blog made its debut.  Since then, close to 2,000 posts (initially there were 7 posts a week) have appeared.  They have produced one book (Naturally Curious Day by Day), many questions, comments and exchanges, new friends, generous donations and hopefully new insight into this magical world of ours.  Thank you all for seven very rewarding years.

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Don’t Let the Snow Fool You!

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The recent major snow storm in the Northeast inevitably confirmed climate change doubters’ convictions. However, dramatic swings in temperature are also part of the changing climate, and the overall trend is unquestionably one of shorter winters.

The U.S. Geological Survey says spring is showing up two to three weeks earlier than normal in the southeast United States this year, from Texas to Washington, and is making its way gradually north. This scientifically-proven phenology finding is based on flowering and leafing out times. In the Arctic, some grasses are flowering a month early, depriving hibernating animals of a crucial early-spring food source. Snowshoe hares and ermine are failing to molt their white winter coats before the world turns green, leading to less successful protection (and for the ermine, predation) for these animals. The climate scientists have it right, regardless of the white world outside our windows — New York City’s forecast is for the mid-60’s on Wednesday. Who knows what flowers we’ll find when the snow soon melts – perhaps the unfurling flower buds of Round-leaved Hepatic (pictured).

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River Otter Tails

3-31-17 otter tail impression2 026From their nose to the tip of their tail, North American River Otters measure three to four feet long. Their tail makes up anywhere from a third to nearly a half of their length. A River Otter’s tail is very thick at its base, packed with muscles, flexible, and tapers to a point. It is used to steer when an otter is swimming slowly, propel the otter when it is swimming at high speed and to help the otter balance when it stands upright on its hind legs. River Otters, known for their powerful swimming, can reach speeds of six to seven miles per hour with the help of this appendage.

When loping through the snow, River Otters often hold their tails up off the surface of the snow, but not always. Occasionally drag marks can be seen.  In the accompanying photograph, an otter had leapt up an incline, and in so doing left an imprint of its impressive tail in the snow.

(Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op, and Joan Waltermire for her sharp eyes.)

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