I feel badly for Beavers (Caster canadensis). These large rodents seem victims of a conservation double standard. If they build a dam in the backcountry, they create a precious wetland. And if the dam breaks, the sediments left behind create a rich meadow. On the other hand, beavers are blamed for $100 million in property damage annually thanks to the floods they cause when they shore up a stream that’s close to a town or a farm.
I saw this beaver while fishing on a small lake in Sharon, Vermont. The only dam there was man-made, the one that created the lake. This fellow built his lodge on the bank near the dam. As I watched him busily go about his day, gnawing sapling and dragging them to his lodge, I wondered how old he was. Beavers can live up to 24 years in the wild. They can also weigh up to 60 pounds, though this one looked half that size. I also wondered whether he (or she) had any kits inside his lodge.
As I watched him swim by, he must have suddenly noticed me staring at him. With a whack of his tail, he disappeared under the surface of the lake. As beavers can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes, I didn’t expect him to come up for a while and went on my way.
Now, as I watch the wind whip snow past my living room window, my mind drifts back to that beaver. I wonder how he is fairing this winter. Beavers stay active year round, even when their watery habitat freezes over. Like humans, they not only have a tremendous capacity for changing their surroundings, they also like to stay close to home when the weather turns nasty.
Having just returned from a Thanksgiving vacation in Massachusetts, I had hoped to write about something uniquely New Englandy. To me the greater Boston area is all about clams, lobsters, shorebirds and cranberry bogs. Granted it’s a narrow, stereotypical view but if I could expand my limited expectations then my trip would be a success.
Unfortunately I only spotted a few dumpster gulls and a couple of Deer Ticks (Ixodes scapularis). I probably should have gotten out more. But you know how Thanksgiving is. It’s all about the thanking and the eating and despite picking up a cold on the plane ride up (thanks open air sneezer in seat 24A!) I still managed to eat more than any normal person should at any given meal. It’s a funny thing, I don’t need to eat so much. I just want to and this makes me wonder how much joy a snake gets when it consumes a feast much larger than it appears it should.
A few years ago I was leading a summer camp in Vermont. A couple of kids heard a strange noise in the woods, called me over and we discovered a Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) eating a Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). Several kids were horrified but for the most part there was great interest in the likelihood that this slender snake could eat this wide-bodied and seemingly unflappable frog. The snake meticulously maneuvered its ever widening mouth to position the frog into an easy transition down its throat.
Once in the intestine, the gartersnake has the ability to elevate its metabolic rate, increase enzyme activity and blood flow to the digestive system and increase the mass of the intestine, liver and kidney to aid in removing and storing nutrients from its prey. It can just as quickly reverse all of these functions and revert to normal conditions. Ultimately the quick digestive process prevents a snake from slithering about with a large meal in its belly.
No such luck for me on Thanksgiving. My digestive system is used to a pattern of thrice-a-day feedings and I had clearly overwhelmed my system. Happy Belated Thanksgiving.
There is perhaps no animal that has as much mystique in northern New England as the Fisher. And wrapped up in its mysterious natural history are plenty of tales. Take the blood-curdling scream of the fisher at night. Actually, they are a nearly silent predator, most of those night noises are fox or owls. Or how about the colloquial name: fisher-cat, when they are neither a cat nor do they eat fish. European settlers named them for their superficial resemblance to the European polecat, also referred to as fichet or fitche.
So I wasn’t surprised to learn something new about Fishers when my friend Deb Williams at the Aloha Foundation’s Ohana Family Camp on Lake Fairlee, Vermont contacted me about a strange Fisher finding. She found the desiccated body of a Fisher under a cabin they were rebuilding. But what was amazing about this poor fellow were the quills. Its face and body was full of Porcupine quills. I’d always heard Fishers were specialists at eating Porcupines, but here was one that clearly died after a massive misstep.
I thought Fishers were experts at eating Porcupines, so I turned to my colleague Steve Faccio, a biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies who studied Fishers during their reintroduction to Connecticut years ago. “This drives home a common misconception about the fisher-porcupine relationship,” says Steve. “Fishers are not porky ‘specialists’, but will take them on occasion, usually when they’ve been unsuccessful at killing other prey.
It turns out that although mostly carnivorous, Fishers will generally eat whatever comes along or is available. They can travel 60 miles on some hunting forays. Their main prey include carrion of all sorts, snowshoe hare, mice, voles, shrews, squirrels, birds, amphibians, insects, and even fruits and nuts. I once tracked a Fisher in deep snow with Steve for miles only to find in the end that it settled for dinning on frozen apples off an old tree. One summer I even found Fisher scat filled with Hermit Thrush egg shells.
But when they have to, Fishers do indeed feed on Porcupines, which are covered in dangerous quills. Well, not totally covered. If you ever come across a porky you will notice that it always tries to expose its hind end and tail while hiding its face. Move to the front of it and it will turn around to show you the business end, raising its quills and swinging its armed tail back and forth. But its face has a gap in the armor and is exploited by Fishers. They attack Porcupines with swift and repeated bites to the quill-free face and head. Once it has killed it, the Fisher turns it over and devours it from the stomach side where there are also no quills.
“Attacking one is a gamble that takes a lot of energy, but has a big payoff if they are successful, although the risk is high and potentially fatal,” notes Steve. And Deb’s find gives us proof positive of that.
Until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a leaf peeper and a brown creeper. But a fall trip to New England changed all that. Now I know a leaf peeper isn’t a tree with eyeballs or an invasive species. Well, that last part isn’t completely true. Leaf peepers are invasive. Flocking to New England from places like Miami, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the world, they’re not locals. They invade the Northeast with a singular purpose in mind, to view wild lands and rural landscapes when the colors of turning leaves are most varied and vibrant.
Make no doubt about it. For a human possessing even a smidgen of appreciation for the often bold, sometimes subdued tapestry of color and texture of turning leaves, a leaf peep in New England is unforgettable. But although the northern Rocky Mountains don’t draw too many fall tourists who come just to see the leaves, our peep show is nothing to sneeze at. Turning aspens may range in color from fresh-churned butter to fiery orange and even crimson. The large leaves of black cottonwoods take on a bright yellow mantle, the more dramatic for its contrast with their dark, deeply furrowed trunks. Chokecherries line the creek bottoms in colors ranging from orange to ochre. Skunk brush on the hillsides flames brilliant crimson. The leaf show in the West may not rival the sheer scope and drama of that in New England, but I’m still happy to be a peeper, Rocky Mountain style.
When it comes to tongue wagging, snakes beat even the best gossipers in town. They seem to flick them in, out and about incessantly. Like the ears of a gossiper, the snake’s tongue is searching for information.
Garter snakes have especially colorful tongues – a bright red base and glossy black forked tips. It’s also a highly sensitive chemical collector. With each wag of the tongue airborne molecules are captured for analysis. Even with its mouth closed, the snake can slide its tongue through a space in its upper jaw.
Inside the mouth the forked tips of the tongue deliver the captured molecules to the vomeronasal organ (VNO), also called the Jacobson’s organ, located in the palate of the mouth below the nasal cavity. In mammals the opening to this organ is to the nose, but in snakes it opens to the mouth via small ducts. The tips of the tongue are drawn over narrow grooves in the roof of the mouth, which pass the chemical information into the ducts and up to the VNO.
The VNO has two openings in the palate. The forked tongue may actually allow the snake to have stereo chemo-sensation. If the odor is stronger on one side, the snake can ascertain the direction to the source.
The chemo-sensation of the VNO in snakes is much greater than in most mammals. The next time you see a snake, don’t be alarmed at the tongue wagging. It’s just tasting your scent.
Now that summer is blazing and those of us in bear country have put our bird feeders away, I have turned to feeding the butterflies. That’s right, feeding butterflies. You’ve probably seen this if you have visited one of those indoor butterfly gardens that have all the tropical wonders flying right around your head. It’s simply a plate with rotten fruit on it. Many species are attracted to it; allowing us a close look at them.
Many butterflies love flower nectar, but they also can be found sipping on dung, urine, sap, mud and rotten fruit. We can take advantage of this by creating a fruit feeder in our yard to attract them so we can watch them up close and personal. You can use just about any old fruit you have laying around or even ask your local grocer for long past pieces. My favorite recipe consists of old bananas, a bit of molasses, stirred, and left in a bucket with a lid to get real gooey. Place a bit of this on the butterfly feeders and then sit back and watch them come to the feast. Whatever fruit you use, it has to be a fruity, odiferous and gooey mess for best results. If it starts to dry out in the sun, just moisten it a bit or clean it off and add a new batch to the feeder.
Once the temperatures in the spring start to regularly be in the 50s, get your feeders out to attract adult butterflies that over-wintering like Mourning Cloaks, Question Marks, and Eastern Commas. As the weather warms and the season progresses you can attract more and more species – admirals, ladies, emperors and browns. You can feed until late fall when it becomes too cold for butterflies.
You don’t need to go out and buy a butterfly feeder. There are a number of easy to make feeders and you probably have the parts right around your house. Here are some you can build:
The plastic plate feeder – drill three holes on the very edge of a plastic plate. Insert wire, strings or even a nice plant hanger. Hang it from a tree or your bird feeding station high enough to keep raccoons and other night animals at bay. Place your fruit goo on the plate and wait.
The ceramic plate feeder – find a ceramic plate that is attractive and a ceramic or glass bud vase that matches. Turn the vase upside-down and, using your favorite all-weather glue, attach the plate to the bottom of the vase. When the glue is dry, find a post (wooden or metal is fine) that fits into the vase. Erect the pole in your garden and place the vase onto the pole so that the ceramic plate is upright and flat. Add your fruit goo to the plate and sit back and wait for them to come. With an attractive vase and plate, this can be a nice accent to your butterfly garden!
The suet feeder – take the wire suet feeder that you used all winter to feed the birds and place slices of rotten fruit in it just like you would with suet. This isn’t quite as effective as the plates as you can’t have the fruit turn to goo, which is more attractive to the butterflies, but it does work sometimes.
If critters such as raccoons are visiting your feeder at night, you may have to remove it in the evening. But if you can leave it out at night, try visiting it before bedtime with a flashlight in hand. You’re liable to find some really neat moths at your feeder too.
What are you waiting for? Make a few feeders and hang one in your garden and the other just outside your window and make it fun and easy to watch butterflies. If you spot some on your feeder, I’d love to see photos of them. Share them on the Audubon Guides Facebook page!
I thought the bee was attacking me. As I dashed out of our garage it suddenly hovered before my face seemingly challenging me. It looked like a bumblebee and what caught my eye was the white face. It soon moved away, but after a few trips I realized that every time I walked from the garage to the house, he was there to greet me.
I quickly found out that this is common behavior of male carpenter bees as they protect and patrol their small territories looking for intruders or mates. There’s no reason to be alarmed; males don’t sting. Only the dark-faced females can muster a sting and usually only if handled, something only an entomologist would do. Male territories usually encompass about 60 feet around the nest site or food-plant area. Despite having larger eyes than females, they will chase any interloper that comes near – birds, flying insects, people, and even towards the occasional airplane high in the sky.
There are hundreds of species of native bees in eastern North America, but there are only two species of carpenter bees – Southern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa micans) found in the Southeast and the Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) from New England southward.
They’re fairly easy to identify. At first blush they look like large bumblebees, but if you look more closely you’ll notice that they have shiny, black and mostly hairless abdomens. Peer even closer and you’ll see their massive and sharp galea hanging down from their mouth. These are used to chew their way through wood, giving them their namesake.
Carpenter bees don’t eat wood. They just chew through it to create tunnels for nesting and resting in dead trees or branches, log, or unfinished wood on structures. They prefer softwoods like pine, fir or cedar, which are easier to excavate and have straighter grain. With their sharp galea, females chew a round entrance hole about a half-inch in diameter. It can take up to two days to chew across the wood grain. Once the tunnel is about the length of their body, they turn ninety degrees and excavate more quickly with the grain. If they come to a knot, the tunnel may go around it. Some nests have two or more tunnels that parallel the main hall, each over a foot long. They can use the same nest site year after year perhaps by just adding a new tunnel or lengthening one. One colony was used for 14 years.
Carpenter bees are solitary bees. Unlike bumble bees there are no queens or workers, just individual males and females. Newly hatched females may live together in their nest with their mother during their first year. But each female will have its own nest and brood.
At the end of a tunnel the female lays a huge egg on a loaf of pollen the size of a kidney bean. At just over a half inch it’s one of the largest insect eggs in the world. When it hatches the grub will feed on the pollen as it grows. The female chews the surrounding wood into a pulp to create a cardboard like partition that seals the egg within its own cell. Each tunnel can have up to eight cells.
Here’s what gets them in trouble. Carpenter bees can create nests in fences, outdoor furniture, and buildings. They select bare wood on roof eaves, fascia boards, porch ceilings, decks, railings, siding, shutters and other weathered and bare wood. They will seldom if ever bore into painted or varnished wood. Which makes their often minor damage both avoidable and solvable.
It takes years for carpenter bees to cause significant structural damage. You can minimize their damage by filling and sealing nest holes in the fall or winter with a small dowel or caulk. Filling them in the spring or summer will just cause them to make a new entrance hole. You can also provide alternative nesting sites in untreated cedar boards, their favorite wood.
Why not just eradicate them? From spring lupines to late summer goldenrods, carpenter bees are pollinators of plants representing 19 different families. Like most bees, they enter the opening of a flower and reach in with their glossa, like a long tubular tongue, to suck nectar. They also gather pollen to carry away on their bristled-covered rear legs.
Carpenter bees are also cheaters. If the flower is too small or too long for them to reach with their relatively short glossa, they simply rob them. After crawling up the flower they stab the base of the flower with their galea and gain access to the nectar. Sometimes other bees will feed at these holes later too. The flower loses the nectar it uses to entice insects to visit without being pollinated as the stamen and anthers are bypassed by the thieves.
Over the last decade carpenter bees have been moving farther and farther northward. Keep watch for the hovering male signaling his territory around you.
Its hard to miss the bright Red Efts in the woods this year. With all the rain this year they are wandering widely. Efts are the terrestrial form of the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). Like most amphibians, they have to keep their skin moist so they are most often seen crawling around during rainy days.
In later summer aquatic larvae may transform either directly into the adult aquatic stage or become a terrestrial eft. Bright orange and red, the efts live on land for up to four years. They eat small insects, springtails, snails, and other arthropods. As they grow older they become darker and darker until they begin to look almost like an adult Eastern Newt. They return to the water where they will mate and live the rest of their lives.
Why such an obvious, bright orange color? This is aposematic coloration, warning coloration that makes a poisonous animal particularly conspicuous and recognizable to predators. Their tough skin contains high concentrations of tetradotoxin, a neurotoxin and strong emetic.
Tetrodotoxin is the most poisonous non-protein substance known to biologists and similar to that found in pufferfish. It blocks the conduction of nerve signals to muscles causing blood vessels to relax and leading to a sudden drop in blood pressure and then shock. In a nutshell, the toxin blocks the signals from your brain that tell your heart to beat and lungs to breath.
When approached or attacked by a predator, efts may assume the Unken reflex, a defense posture taken by many amphibians to show off the aposematic skin. The eft flexes its mid-section making the head and tail raised and curled over the back in the shape of a horseshoe.
Efts are about ten times more toxic than the aquatic adults. Just a small amount has been shown to kill mice in a mere 10 minutes, but both forms will kill mice if eaten in high enough concentrations. Blue Jays outright reject them as food. Efts swallowed by toads or snakes have been regurgitated after 30 minutes and recovered rapidly without lasting ill effects. But not all predators are deterred. Raccoons can apparently eat efts without any apparent toxic effects.
A few years ago a friend was watching a mallard on her pond when suddenly the duck shuddered, and died. I performed a quick necropsy to see what it might have in its digestive tract. What I found surprised me, dozens of partially digested Eastern Newts. I will never know for sure what killed the duck, but I sure was suspicious it chose the wrong meal.
No matter how hungry you are on your hike, whatever you do, don’t eat the newts.
We’ve all seen it – the flop. A soccer player goes down feigning injury or the basketball defender that exaggerates an offensive charging foul. The flop looks terrible but it can work. Today on a walk in the woods I saw a flop, but this one was from an Ovenbird.
The bird was calling with loud, incessant “chunk” calls. It was a mere 6 feet from my face on a branch and it wasn’t budging. Something was up. As I peered at the calling bird my wife whispered, “Kent, look at the bird on the path.” It took me a moment to find the bird just a few feet in front of us as it was frozen and well camouflaged, a very young fledgling that must have just left the nest moments ago.
I took a step forward to get a better look. The adult immediately jumped from its perch and landed just a few feet from me. With spread tail and wings it moved erratically about as if injured – ah, the flop. Perhaps if I was a predator I would have immediately gone for it. The healthy bird would have slowly led me away from the frozen fledgling. Once it felt it had led me far enough away, it would suddenly fly up to a branch appearing perfectly healthy. And like a good defender on the basketball court when they get the call after the flop, it wouldn’t outwardly show pleasure at the great ruse, but inside it would have a grin a mile wide.
Neither bright nor showy and often hidden under broad leaves, you can easily miss the green and purple pulpit holding Jack, the spathe and the spadix in botanical parlance. Typical of the Arum family, the spadix is covered with tiny flowers hidden deep down in the spathe.
With a strange looking flower like this, who is the pollinator? Tiny flies called fungus gnats are attracted to the fungal smell and heat of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit flower. The flies drop down into the spathe and become trapped. Pollen clings to them as they search for an escape route. Finally, they escape through a small space in the bottom of the spathe and fly away. Their next stop might be another nearby Jack-in-the-Pulpit, but this time they enter a female flower. There is no escape hatch at the bottom of the spathe. The flies bounce about trying to escape and in the process they drop pollen onto the pistol of an inflorescence.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit grows very slowly in the shaded forest understory. It may take a plant a couple of years to garner enough energy to produce a male flower. After a few years as a male they may have enough energy stored in the corm, an underground stem where the plant stores starch, to grow a female flower and set seed. Depending on soil and light conditions, it may take a seedling up to three years to form a flower. After a few more years it may be able to grow a flower with both male and female inflorescence. The male flowers mature and pass before the female flowers to avoid self-pollination. If the growing conditions have been good when it is about 20 years old it may finally produce female flowers. But if at any time conditions become poor, it may revert back to less energy costly male flowers again. Some of these plants can live to be 100 years old.
Caution, this plant is poisonous. The entire plant contains calcium oxalate, the stuff you find in many meat tenderizers. These needle-shaped crystals are found in specialized cells throughout the plant and can even bother some people who simply touch a broken part of the plant. Calcium oxalate causes an intense burning sensation if ingested. It literally tenderizes your mouth. Also called Indian Turnip, Native Americans dried the corms to make them safe for eating. But there is something in the woods that eats it raw without apparent harm.
I was passing through a large wet area in a rich hardwood forest a few years ago when I came across a place that was pocked with diggings in the mucky soil. It didn’t take me long to realize that each pit had bits of Jack-in-the-Pulpit left or scattered about. Black Bears love to eat Jack-in-the-Pulpit and they had recently paid this patch a visit. What would turn our tongues raw doesn’t seem to bother the bears at all.