Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What's That? Wednesday - Answer to last week's photo puzzle

Congratulations to Steve and Kenton and Rebecca for their correct answers to last week's "What's That?" photo puzzle.  Steve's guess of Osage Orange was right as was Kenton and Rebecca's guess of Hedge apple.  By coincidence, Steve had blogged about osage oranges the same day I posted the photo.  Read about osage oranges on his blog at Blue Jay Barrens.

The osage orange (Macula pomifera) is found naturally in areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas but has been grown in other parts of the U.S.  This particular osage orange tree is growing on the property of Mass Audubon's Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield where there are several non-native species of trees which were brought onto the property in the early 1900s when it was owned by Thomas Proctor. 

Osage orange fruit is not edible, but some animals especially squirrels and deer will eat the seeds.  The trees were often grown in rows for use as fences in prairie regions.

There's some interesting folklore surrounding the osage orange.  As Kenton and Rebecca pointed out, Hedge apples are sold to deter insects but there's no scientific proof that they do keep spiders, roaches, etc. away.

Thanks to all who answered.  No puzzle this Wednesday - will be away for the holiday.  HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Birds!

With the onset of fall, the common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are flocking in the hundreds and its a pretty astounding sight. This past week, their collective din has been so loud it drowns out the drone of local and highway traffic, heavy machinery, and any other outdoor sounds in our neighborhood. They were out traveling en masse in the mid-morning when I took this photo. First they gathered together in trees on the edge of the street, then some impetus made them fly and land in our back yard.

They pecked around in a frenzy, staying for only a couple of minutes before some other impulse made them take off for the woods. When they gather in the trees, they squeak and squawk, but when they fly off there's an eerie quiet and a sudden whoosh of wings in flight. You can hear the sudden hush in the video below.

Some flocks grow to enormous proportions, numbering over a million birds.  This 2007 article from The Boston Globe highlights such a flock which frequents an area off I-93 in Methuen.  The birds gather before migration, although not all head south.   Grackles eat just about anything and can become a problem when congregating in such large groups.  Flocks cause damage to buildings with their feces and ravage agricultural crops, especially corn.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"What's That?" Wednesdays

I thought I'd try something new on this blog - a weekly photo puzzle.  Starting today, Wednesday posts will feature a close-up view of something from the natural world.  Please try your hand at guessing and post your answer in the comments section below.  Sometimes there will be hints.  Answer to this week's photo puzzle will be published next Wednesday. Good luck! 

What's That?

Hint:  a fruit found in Oklahoma,Texas and Arkansas, not native to Massachusetts but can be found here

Monday, November 9, 2009

Caught on Camera - Black Bears

Thanks to my sister who lives in Connecticut and sent me these photos of a black bear (Ursus americanus) out for a midnight munch.  Her and her husband often set up a motion sensitive camera in the woods behind their home to get a glimpse of who's hanging around in the wee hours of the night. 

This is the first time they've caught a black bear on film.  Most visitors are deer, oppossum, racoons, and coyotes.  According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, there have been over 1,300 reported black bear sightings in the state since November 2008.  It's hard to believe that during the 1800s black bears were almost completely wiped out in Connecticut. 

Black bear are omnivores and eat anything from insects to grasses, fruits, nuts, berries, carrion and small mammals.  Of course, they're also attracted by garbage and seeds and suet put out for birds.  At this time of year, the bears are getting ready to den for the winter.  Contrary to popular belief, black bears are not true hibernators and will come out during the winter.  Bear cubs are born during the winter in January or February weighing only a few ounces. But they can really pack on the pounds. By the time they're adults, males can weigh up to 400+ pounds and females about 200 pounds.

Closer to home, a black bear was spotted in Methuen, Mass. this September checking out someone's backyard pig sty.  MassWildlife biologists have been studying Massachusett's black bear population since the 1970s.  It currently stands about 3,000.  Unlike Connecticut, Massachusetts does have a regulated black bear hunting season to help keep the population in check.  See their site for excellent information on Massachusetts' black bears.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

You Know It's Fall in New England When...

It's definitely feeling like fall has finally arrived with temperatures in the 40's and 50's.  Here are some signs that autumn is here.

The snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) have hatched and are making their way to a nearby wetland habitat.  I found this palm-sized little one on our back lawn during a torrential downpour last week.  The "snapper" is found across Massachusetts and lays its eggs in late May and June.  Sometimes, as in this case, the nesting spot is a suburban lawn.  Year after year, this baby's mother excavates her nest in the mulch around our neighbor's mailbox.  After a period of incubation of about 90 days, the young ones hatch and make their way across the street, past cars, dogs, birds, lawn furniture and swimming pools, finally reaching a creek which empties into a large pond.  I released this snapper at the pond where it will feed on small fish, carrion, invertebrates and aquatic plants.  Snapping turtles can live more than 50 years.

A more irksome sign that cooler weather is on its way - swarming ladybugs!  Our south-facing home becomes a nice warm surface for lady beetles trying to get in from the cold.  Lady beetles typically burrow under tree bark or logs to wait out the winter, but the smart ones find their way into cozy homes.  Older homes with cracks provide plenty of spaces where lady beetles can come in.  Luckily, we had new windows installed last year, so the only lady beetles getting in are the ones that come in and out through the doors with us.  Most of the lady beetles are the Asian multi-colored lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) which entomologists believe were introduced into the United States in the 1980s.  After entering a home, lady bugs can last the winter by entering a state of diapause during which they stop growing and live off their body fat.  Many die, however, from dehydration.


Another home invader making its fall appearance is the Western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), a type of leaf-footed stink bug.  Originally found in the Pacific Northwest, these bugs have been making their way east and have been here since the early 1990s. 

They are true bugs, using their sucking mouth parts to extract the juicy pulp of conifer seeds.  Like ladybugs, the seed bugs are looking for a good safe place to overwinter and live up to their stink bug reputation by releasing an unpleasant odor when disturbed.  Fortunately, they're slow and easy to catch and relocate.

The recent fall rains have added quite a bit of moisture to the land and we're discovering more redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), both in the red and darker "lead-back" phase.  Below are a red and lead back which reside under some bricks beneath our porch. 

These helpful little creatures forage at night on slugs, spiders, worms, and other invertebrates.  Redbacks are terrestrial and lungless, breathing instead through their skin.  In fall, redbacks are busy mating.  They will overwinter underground, as deep as 15 inches and wait out the winter before laying their eggs in the spring.

Beavers (Castor canadensis) are busy preparing their lodges for the long cold days ahead.  They're also making sure they've got plenty of twigs, shoots, leaves and bark in their food stores.

Apparently, no tree is too large to tackle.

Here's a lodge with a fresh pile of branches in front.  The same beaver built a nice long dam nearby.

Plant life is changing all around.  Our Montauk daisies (Nipponantheum nipponnicum) and sedum (Hylotelephium spectabile) bloomed last month, attracting huge numbers of bees, bee flies, jewel flies and wasps.

Shrubs, such as the winged euonymus in the second photo, are producing beautiful red or orange berries, to the delight of the local birds.

Heavy rains over the summer have resulted in an abundance of apples in local orchards.

Our pumpkins are ready right on schedule for Halloween.  The resident spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)who made sure the vines were insect-free, has left for the winter.

And, of course, the cold nights mean frost covered grass and spectacular foliage.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fall Fashion Update

What's fashionable this fall? The caterpillars' daring wardrobes scream color and texture.

First on the cat walk is an American Dagger Moth caterpillar (Acronicta americana) sporting a long, luxurious cream colored coat punctuated by five dramatically long black spikes.
Its friend, however, has decided to go with a striking pure white look.

Next up we have the Black Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes) choosing smooth over hairy. The bold black is highlighted by a stunning graphic pattern in the ever-popular eco-green.

For a splash of color and drama, this black swallowtail caterpillar shows off its osmetrium, orange projections which are meant to scare off predators.

Sporting a colorful coat of yellow, black and reddish-orange is the White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillar (Orgyia leucostigma). The pom-pom tufts along the back create a soft puffy look.

In stark contrast, this Geometrid moth caterpillar prefers neutral grey to enhance its twigginess.

Representing the plus-size models is the 3.5 inch Polyphemus moth caterpillar (Antheraea polyphemus), a member of the silk moth family. The bright green skin is dotted by bold red and metallic silver spots. Vertical yellow lines highlight the accordion-like segments.

Our next model is the Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), affectionately known as the Woolly Bear. Just in time for Halloween, it dons a fuzzy black and orange coat.

Another caterpillar in the same family, the Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar (Ecpantheria scribonia), also showcases a thick woolly coat which opens to reveal brilliant flashes of red skin.

Model #9 is the Milkweed Tussock moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle) attired in the casual tousled bristle-brush look.

Last, but definitely not least, the cheekiest outfit of all goes to the Brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis) for its radical use of color and design. Hard to believe that this dazzling creature will pupate and emerge as a drab brown moth.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Summer Guests

I had guests this summer who stayed for four weeks, and I didn't mind a bit. They came and went at leisure, sometimes flitting to the back porch for less than two minutes. There was some squabbling, but it was amusing not annoying. My only regret was that they didn't stay longer. The visitors? Three ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).

After seeing hummingbirds in my neighbor's garden during a morning walk, I decided I'd lure them into my own back yard with a feeder of sugar water. A good feeder isn't costly, but buy one that's easy to clean. The formula for sugar water is simple: just boil one part sugar and four parts water for a couple of minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool before pouring into the feeder. I make a small amount that lasts just a couple of days so that I'm more apt to clean the feeder and replace the water solution often.

At first I hung the feeder from a shepherd's hook in the back yard, close to the trees where they might easily find it. Within a day, they were hooked. Once I had won them over, I moved the feeder to a hook on the back porch railing, hoping to get a closer view from our kitchen. The plan worked and we were rewarded with frequent daily visits by one ruby-throated male and two females who spent most of the time emitting high-pitched "chip, chip!" sounds and dive bombing each other.

The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they quickly become accustomed to human presence and will allow you to remain close by. There are even tiny feeder tubes for hand-feeding.

The flight of these tiny acrobats is mesmerizing to watch. At just 3-3.5 inches and weighing about 3 grams, they hover, twist and turn, beating their wings at about 52 times per second! In slow motion video, you can actually see that the hummingbird's wings are moving back and forth in a figure-8 motion, not up and down. As they got used to us sitting on the porch, our curious little guests would fly near our heads, their wings buzzing furiously.

Here are three photos of one of the females. Unlike the male, she has no red throat patch. Females are also larger than males. They alternated visits to the feeder.


In the video below, the colorful male is feeding and at one point turns and approaches to take a good look at the odd creature trying to steady the camera. Notice at the end of the video that his feeding session ends abruptly when he's attacked from above by one of the females.

Male hummingbirds arrive at their summer destinations and depart for their winter homes before the females do. This male hummingbird left for southern climes about two weeks ago. We have spied one female, however, just this past week, feeding from flowers in the garden. Then her visits to the feeder became less frequent. On cool evenings she would stay at the feeder longer and even perch on the top of the pole, sometimes zipping off for a moment to catch a passing insect, then returning to take her post.

I haven't seen her in two days. I suspect that she is headed on her long migration as well.

For more information about hummingbirds and migration in general including citizen science projects, see A great way to attract hummingbirds is by creating a garden. See a list of hummingbird friendly plants at

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another day at the pond

Going to the pond never gets old. Last week my nieces came to visit, providing the perfect excuse to head over for the umpteenth time this summer.

The fountain which had been off all summer, had now been turned on, spraying a showery rainbow across the surface of the pond.

How would this affect the creatures living in the pond? More critters seemed to shy away from the spray, prefering to keep close to the pond's edge. The whirligig beetles were spinning crazily just a couple of feet from shore and we noticed more frogs and salamanders crowded in the leaf litter and the duckweed.

There was also an abundance of interesting fungi growing on the mossy banks.

While I was busy taking photos, my son, daughter and two nieces were busy scooping muck from the rim of the pond, discovering spotted salamanders and frogs at all stages of development.

My 9-year-old niece managed to net a good-sized green frog with a bright yellow belly.

Here is one of many spotted salamanders they found, some still sporting gills.

This little frog had quite a bit of tail still left.

Below is a giant water bug nymph that was lurking on the pond bottom waiting for a tadpole lunch (or maybe a kid's finger). The best find, by far, was a den of Northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon). I surprised an adult female basking on a sunny patch of moss and she quickly slid into the water. As I called the kids to watch her swimming just below the duckweed, they noticed little heads poking out and thin black bodies winding through the greenery. Babies!

Each child got a chance to catch a tiny snake. Northern water snakes bear live young from August through October, so these little ones were brand new. Everyone enjoyed showing off the snakes.

The babies looked so dark in our palms, but their reddish markings were clearer in the bright sunlight. We returned them to do their job keeping the pond population of leeches, tadpoles, and salamander larvae in check.

Another glorious day and a great way to end the summer. School starts tomorrow...