Loons. September 6, 2021
Found on northern lakes of the US and Canada, loons are better swimmers than flyers and better flyers than walkers. This bird spends most of its time in the water and only comes ashore to mate, lay eggs, and nest. The loon is different from most birds in that it's bones are solid and not hollow, making it heavier. The added weight makes the loon less buoyant but great at diving, which it does a great deal since it eats the fish it catches while underwater. Yes, the loon dives for fish and when it catches one (up to ten inches), the sharp, rear-facing points on the roof of its mouth helps it to clamp down on its prey and swallow it before it re-surfaces. Larger foods are brought up to the surface and eaten.
Before it dives, the loon blows the air out of its lungs and flattens its feathers to remove the air on its body. The loss of air makes the loon sleeker and more weighted down for diving downward. And the loon is an excellent paddler because, unlike other water and land birds, its legs are placed far back on its body. When feeling threatened, however, a loon will "wing row" to get out of an area more quickly than by only paddling with its feet. When it encounters a predator or an encroaching loon, it might also "penguin dance," which is a display where the loon rears up and spreads its wings while its feet rapidly paddle.
So, while the loon can can swim and dive all day, when it comes to walking, the loon has a hard time moving on dry land because of how far back on its body its legs are located. This explains why it prefers to stay safely in the water. The loon even sleeps on the water in fifteen-minute naps with its head turned and rested on its back. A young loon can dive and swim underwater within three days of hatching, but when it's small, it will often ride on one of its parents' backs as it glides across the water.
In flight, the loon can move like a jumbo jet and once it gets into the air, it can reach top speeds of 70 mph. Getting into the air, though, is a chore because, unlike most birds, the loon needs a long runway for taking off. The loon runs on the water's surface while flapping it wings to get enough speed to attain loft and this runway needs to be between 30 yards and 1/4 mile long. So, unfortunately, the loon can become stranded on small ponds when there is an insufficient track to allow the bird to get airborne.
Finally, the song of the loon is unlike any other bird. It yodels and mournfully cries, wails, hoots and tremolo calls, most often during the night. The long and eerie sounds lend to the loon's mystique as a symbol of the northern wilderness.
The Luna Moth. August 1, 2021
The luna moth is a marvelous creature. In 1758, the Swedish scientist who named our different species of organisms -- Carolus Linnaeus -- named this nocturnal insect "Luna," like the Roman goddess for "moon." And he may have been thinking that this insect is like the moon in that it is active only at night and is as translucent and beautiful. The luna moth is one of the largest moth species in North America. It's wingspan is 3" to 4" across! It can be found in deciduous (leaf), hard wood forests from Canada to Florida. Oddly enough, you can often find it hanging stationary on the side of a building under an artificial light. The luna moth evolves just like any other moth, going from larvae to pupa until it cuts its way out of a papery cocoon with the serrated edges of its wings. But beyond its metamorphosis, it is not like any other moth that we know about. Not at all.
First of all, the moth has no way to eat and no digestive system. How does it survive, you might ask. Well, that's the second fascinating fact. The luna moth lives for only one week after it takes its first flight from the pupa. Its sole purpose for emerging from its cocoon is to reproduce during that one week before it dies. In their northern areas, they usually mate one time in June. In their southern habitats, they will mate up to three times during the year. To attract a mate, the female emits a scent that the male can detect from a great distance. Scientists tell us that the luna moth more often will mate after midnight, which is another strange fact. After mating, the female then spends the next few days laying eggs. The eggs hatch after a week or so and the cycle starts again. The luna moth is good at camouflage with its colors and ability to mix in with leaves, but another amazing skill is its ability to defeat the echolocation of predatory bats by deflecting its own sounds with the tails on its hind wings, sending the nearby bat away from it and in a different direction.
Luna moths are mystical and are said to represent luck, determination, change and rebirth. How amazing is the luna moth!
Pigs! July 19, 2021
Did you know that pigs are one of the most intelligent animals on earth? Gentle and fun, they are smarter than a three-year-old human. They like living in small herds with just a few sows and piglets and prefer to cuddle, snuggle, and sleep snout-to-snout. Pigs cannot sweat so in warm weather, they will find puddles to roll in. The mud cools them down and actually protects their fair skin from suburn and insect bites. How smart is that? And they are cleaner than most people think -- setting aside a space for waste far away from their living area, which they keep nice and tidy. Pigs love to forage for their food. And they will eat a lot if given the chance. They run their snouts over the ground and turn over dirt in search of snacks. This process helps renew the soil and allows new plants to grow. When a sow is due to have offspring, she will make a nest of grass and leaves to keep the piglets warm and safe. The babies stay in the nest for around 10 days and wean off their mother's milk at around three months. Pigs are delightfully social, probably because they are so intelligent. They communicate with a variety of grunts and squeaks to report where food can be found, if there is a danger looming, or just to express affection. Pigs live on average for 15 to 20 years and we are all the more better for having this wonderfully interesting creature to learn from.
Eastern (Red, White and) Bluebird. July 3, 2021
Since it's almost the Fourth of July holiday, keep your eyes peeled for the colorful Eastern Bluebird. This bird is red, white and blue and is New York State's state bird. People have been interested in this shy little bird because they have been rare to find, although they nest along the eastern US all the way to Central America. Their population had been decreasing steadily until people began installing bird boxes made just for them in their favorite habitats. Now, their numbers are on the rise. These bird boxes are placed on poles at low heights (from 2' to 20') to allow them to feed from home. If there is no bird box, they will nest in cavities of trees, where usually the female will make a cup of weeds, dry grass and twigs lined with soft grass, feathers and animal hair.
The bluebird rarely lands on the ground. Instead it makes low swoops to eat insects flying in the air or hovers near bushes to eat insects where they find them. Bluebirds are small birds with short tails and legs, but their wingspans are very long (10" to 13"), allowing them to hover when courting and swoop when eating. Their keen eyes can spot prey from 60' away! Bluebirds eat crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles to name a few, and they won't pass up an earthworm, snail or a tree frog if it finds one nearby. They make a soft, melodious warble and use chits or chipmunk sounds when alarmed at their nest. When they are not nesting, they wander or roam in the open country-side in small flocks. You can see them in open spaces, cut-over or burned woodlands, and large suburban lawn areas.
Look and listen for Eastern Bluebird. They may be right where you least expect them! Happy Independence Day!
Summer Solstice and Animals. June 18, 2021
The summer solstice in the northern hemisphere will happen on Sunday, June 20th this year. That is the time when we will have the longest period of daylight in one day for the year. It is a true turning point as it is the first day of summer and from now until the winter solstice, the days will begin to shorten. How does this extra summer light affect animals? Well, many of them drop their daytime sleeping routine and stay awake much longer to forage for food or simply to exercise and survey their environment. Some animals will sync their sleep time with when their food digestion process kicks in. The extra long days can affect bird reproduction and even plant bloom periods. Insect activity too. Further north in the Arctic, nocturnal animals find it difficult to forage for food with the many extra hours of daylight that they get. Humans usually see a disruption in their own internal clocks for sleep, but we adjust fairly quickly.
If you have a pet, watch and see if the longer days of sunlight affect its behaviors. Keep a journal and record your observations. Then compare what the animal does during the long days with what it does during the shorter days of winter. Does it eat more or less? Does it eat more often? Does it drink more water? More often? Does it sleep more? When does it sleep? Does it change how it sleeps? Does it have more dreams, especially a dog, in the summer? You may notice some interesting facts about your friend and how he/she adjusts to the daylight shifts each year.
It's Raining! It's Pouring! Get a Rain Barrel! May 30, 2021
Rain! Did you know that rainwater is better for plants than water from the tap or faucet in your home? Rainwater is pure hydration and free from salts, treatment chemicals, and minerals that often are added to your drinking water. If it is coming off your roof, rainwater will have natural traces of organic material that keep the water alive with bits of pollen, bird droppings, and leaves. The rain that is soaking into the soil brings these extra benefits along for the plant roots to absorb. Rain, falling through the air, grabs and carries nitrates, which is made up naturally of oxygen and nitrogen. Nitrogen is necessary for plant-life, but we have found that plants have a difficult time using applied nitrogen compared to the nitrates that rainwater delivers. Plants prefer slightly acidic water -- between 5.5 and 6.5 ph -- and rainwater will naturally be at that perfect ph level after it catches carbon dioxide and other minerals through the air. Water from your indoor pipes can have alkaline, often added to prevent their corrosion, at a higher ph level. This is especially true if you use greywater.
Finally, the action of the rainwater itself adds the airborne minerals and loosens up and frees soil nutrients like zinc, manganese, copper and iron to be used by the plant roots. Rainwater will also leach down the salts already in the soil past the roots. And rain will wash off pollutants, dust and mineral deposits from the plant leaves, allowing for more efficient photosynthesis. In the end, rainwater is still the perfect source for plant hydration and health.
So, why not capture some of this wonderful rainwater for your gardens and lawn! You can find or make a rainbarrel that will fill naturally or through a roof gutter spout when it rains. Just make sure that you add a screen to keep out leaves and debris that can clog the spout. Then, carry a bucket from this reservoir to your plants and/or set up a gravity-fed drip system through a low spout on the barrel to spread this water throughout your garden at times when rain is scarce.
"Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life." John Updike
The Sun in Partial Splendor. May 23, 2021
The sun is going to be making a splash on June 10th when there is a partial sunrise solar eclipse visible to people in eastern Canada and the northeastern US. What does that mean? Well, rather than see a full sun at sunrise, you will see a crescent sun rising. Fascinating! People in the far north in Ontario and the Arctic will see a full eclipse that will appear as "a ring of fire" at sunrise. Annual solar eclipses occur when the moon comes between the earth and the sun and blocks the light coming to us. But on June 10th, the moon will be at such a far distance that for most of us, it will block only part of the sun. And since this is occurring at sunrise in the western hemishpere, it will be shaped like a flaming crescent. People between Toronto and New York City will see the sun "maximally eclipsed" as it rises. The sun further south will be "maximally eclipsed" before it rises into view. What is really exciting is that the two horns of the crescent shape will be seen first as the sun comes into view on the flat horizon.
Set your alarms and get out those solar eclipse protection glasses because, after all, it's the SUN! Have fun!
The Cicadas are Coming! May 11, 2021
Billions of cicadas are emerging from the underground after staging in the soil for seventeen years. They have been sucking on the sap of tree roots until they seem to know when it's time to show up. And that time, apparently, is now, when the soil reaches 64 degrees F. Scientists are calling this 2021 Cicada-palooza "Brood X" . When they do show up, the males will start shrieking in the hopes of finding a mate. Several 100,000 cicadas per acre will be found in 15 eastern states. The noise they make will be as loud as a lawnmower. Lawns will look like they are moving with the number of these bugs in the grass. The don't bite or sting. They just show up to mate in the treetops, (unless they are eaten by predators who eventually get tired of the menu because there are so many), only to die, letting their eggs drop and burrow into the soil to start the cycle all over again with another brood for the Class of 2038.
There are almost 3,400 species of cicada in the world, but those that are cyclical/periodical and emerge every 17 years are unqiue to the northeastern part of the USA (every 13 years in the south and Mississippi Valley). Stone replicas of cicadas have been placed in burial sites in Asia to help the deceased's transition to the next world. But, of course, those cicadas are not the cyclical kind that overwhelm towns and cities by the billions. Get ready if you are in the target area!
Spring Peeper Frogs. May 2, 2021
A good sign that Spring has arrived in the Eastern US is the sound of the "chorus frogs" we know as Spring Peepers. The sound of a group of peeper frogs is like sleigh bells jingling, and this chirping is actually a mating call. The peeper makes its chirp with the help of a vocal sack under its chin. First, the peeper will close its mouth and nostrils. Next, it will squeeze its lungs tightly and this causes the vocal sack to inflate like a big balloon. It's during this second step that the peeper makes its chirping sounds as the air passes from the lungs, over the vocal chords and into the vocal sack. There are western US peepers and boreal chorus peepers and they sound different from the eastern peepers. The western peepers make a sound like high-pitched creaking. The borreal peepers are more raspy and their sound is like rubbing a comb with your fingernail. Only the eastern peeper sounds like jingling bells.
How do spring peeper frogs know when it's Spring? Well, they aren't like most frogs that dig deep into mud to stay alive during the winter. Peeper frogs seem to have an anti-freeze in their bodies that keeps their vital organs alive when the temperature drops below freezing (32 degrees F.). Up to 70% of the peeper's body can freeze and it will remain alive. Scientists don't know what makes the peepers come out of their frozen state, but as the temperature rises, they will thaw out, and after taking some time to recover, will start their merry singing for a new season.
Peeper frogs usually live near watery or swampy areas and they are only about 1.5 inches long. So, you may miss out on seeing one, but when they get together and start their chirping songs, it sounds like you are in a crowded sports stadium cheering for your team!
Bees. April 24, 2021
Did you know that there are winter bees and summer bees? The winter bees work hard all winter maintaining the hive in the cold weather for the rest of the colony. Most of these winter bees will die off and in spring, the remaining bees clean the hive of the many dead bee corpses by pushing them out. Now, the queen bee busily lays eggs -- one in each waxy cell of the hive -- and often will lay 2,000 eggs each day! Worker bees take care of these new eggs with the new spring pollen they find near the hive until the eggs evolve into larvae and then into pupae. As pupae, the new bees develop their legs, eyes, wings and body hairs. This new growth takes from seven to fourteen days depending on the type of bee. Once their transformation is complete, the new adult bees begin to chew their way out of the cell wax to join the hive as summer bees for the next season.
We are ending Earth Week 2021. We hope you did something special for our planet. We say, "Make every week Earth Week!"
Fawns. April 9, 2021
It's that time of year when we begin to see the offspring of many woodland animals. Did you know that after a mother deer or doe delivers her fawn, she will leave it for long periods of time during the day under cover of bushes, high grass and fallen trees? She does this so as not to draw a predator to the baby before it can begin to fend for itself. The doe will visit a couple times during the day to bring it milk and will stay with it through the night, but will keep her distance from the fawn's hiding place for most of the day. And the fawn's reddish-brown coat and white dots traveling in rows down its back provide camouflage as it sleeps by itself in the woods and grassy meadows. So, don't think a fawn has been abandoned because you find it without its mother around. Chances are that mom and baby are following their keen instincts to keep the baby safe. When the fawn is big enough to keep up with its mother, its white spots will fade away and it will wean off her milk going into the summer months.
Loss of a Pet. March 18, 2021
Have you ever lost a pet and it felt like you had lost a best friend? Most of us create such special bonds with our pets that we never contemplate what it would be like not to have them with us. But what happens to us when something happens to them? First, we grieve for our lost friends. We might cry and wonder how life will be without them there. There at the door. There in their basket. On our chair. On our walks. At the beach. In the park. It seems like "there" was everywhere. So how do we get through the loss of having our friend not everywhere with us? Experts say that we should allow the death and loss to be a reality. They tell us we should accept what has happened. We also should allow ourselves to feel the loss. We need to keep and share memories -- sad and wonderful -- to remind us of the bond we had and how special it was. Experts also tell us that if our pet had become part of our identity -- "Max's owner" -- that this will be lost as well. So, yes, we will notice the new silence in our home and will see their toys and dishes and beds, but our senses and especially our hearts will adjust and adapt. And in time, we may be brave enough to open the door to a new pet and a new chapter.
Subnivean Zone. February 27, 2021
Did you know that under the winter snow there is a zone between the ground and the snow where a community of small creatures sleep and eat and travel around without you knowing? As a result of a lot of changes -- metamorphisms - the first snowfall really doesn't touch the ground in a lot of places. It is built up and away from the ground, leaving a layer of air and a breathing space sandwiched between the ground and the snow. This layer of air on the ground and under the snow is called the "subnivean zone," where animals like mice, shrews and voles move about under the snow during the winter. Even birds like chickadees will go to the subnivean zone for protection against the cold weather. Sometimes, an animal will tunnel up to the the snow surface for a short time to get more food, and you can find their tunnel holes or openings in snow near trees and rocks.
Animals are not entirely safe in the subnivean zone, though. A fox or a large owl can follow the sounds of prey crawling under the snow and will dive into the snow to scoop the creature out of the zone. So, even though the zone protects small animals from harsh winter weather, it can't protect them from predators that walk on, or fly above, the snow looking for their own food.
Animal Tracks. February 23, 2021
Did you know that after a big snow day, you can find many amazing animal tracks that you would not have seen at any other time of the year? One kind of animal that you don't normally see roaming around in the daytime is the coyote. This mammal prefers to be out and about in the open when it begins to get dark. So, a coyote sighting is very rare. When it snows, however, you still may not see a coyote but you can find clues that one has been nearby. Coyote tracks look like dog prints and they usually show only the two longest top claws and not all four claws as usually seen on dog marks. The paws of a red and gray fox are similar, but you don't usually see claw marks. Coyotes also walk in a very straight and narrow line and this is unlike a dog that ambles from side to side. The paw print of a coyote in deep snow will look larger than just one paw print because the animal will have placed each rear paw in the deep hole made by a front paw. The paw itself will show two toes with two claws on the front, two toes on the side and the lobe or heel pad.
Lightweight animals like mice and voles make tracks on top of the snow. They look like scratches set in a row. Rabbits tend to hop or bound across the snow. Because they do, you will see two rectangle tracks next to each other (rear feet) followed by two smaller tracks set in a tight row (front feet). The rear feet carry forward so they show you the direction of travel. Squirrels bound too but leave small tracks that show their long skinny fingers/toes. They are wider and blockier than rabbit tracks. Deer have cloven hooves that will show an oval with a split in the snow. Like coyotes, they often step their rear feet into the tracks of the front feet.
In the city, you will see more bird tracks with their stick-like toes. Cats too are found often in urban areas. They have paw prints similar to dogs, but are rounder and bigger with symmetrical four toes and a triangle lobe/heel pad. Cats usually walk in a zig-zag pattern.
So, if you look for animal tracks in the snow, they may not be as unique as a coyote's, but they will reveal who your neighbors are and what they may have been doing when you weren't looking.
Cat Meows. February 15, 2021
Did you know that an adult cat's meow is meant to communicate with humans and not with other cats? And cats are only second to birds as the domestic animal with the widest range of vocalization. They meow as a greeting and to tell you if something is wrong or that they are ill. They also meow to tell you that they want something, i.e. food, attention. Watch to see if your adult cat increases her/his meowing, because it can mean there is an underlying issue or illness. It's nice to talk to your cat but it's nicer that she/he will talk to you.
Maple Trees. February 7, 2021
Did you know that certain cells in sugar and red maple trees contain gas and not water like other trees? When in late winter the night temperatures are below freezing and the day temperatures are above freezing, this back and forth creates pressure on that gas. With negative pressure, caused by night freezing, the gas condenses causing the trees to draw sap up its trunk from its roots. With positive pressure, made during the thaw of warming days, the gas expands and pushes the sap (with a natural sweetener) around and out of the tree through any available weak point on the trunk. One of those weak points is the tap that a maple syrup maker places with an attached bucket. The sap runs into the bucket and the syrup maker takes the sap to a sugar bush to make maple syrup. When the days get too warm -- above 45 degrees F. -- the natural sweetener in the sap is lost and the taste is not as good. This temperature change ends the "tapping" season for the year. So when you pour sweet maple syrup on your pancakes, know that it started out as springtime sap from our maple trees.
Bats. January 26, 2021
Did you know that bats are the only mammals in the world that can truly fly? They have four fingers and a thumb on each front paw -- like a human hand -- but their fingers are extra long and covered by a wing membrane. This membrane allows them to be even more maneuverable than birds when in flight. But because they have these wings on their front arms, the only way they can hold on to anything is with their back feet. However, these back "feet" are not really feet -- they only have toes and claws.
Without a real "foot," the bat cannot stand upright on a tree branch like a bird. So, the bat ends up hanging from the branch upside down. If you should ever see a bat hanging from a tree branch, know that during the night time, it will let go and swoop through the air eating a lot of mosquitoes.
Deer. January 15, 2021
Did you know that a deer will stay warm in winter by changing its coat in September? As the days and nights get cooler, a white-tailed deer's coat will change from a red one to a brown-gray one. The new brown-gray coat is highly insulated and has hollow hairs. The air in the hollow hairs help insulate the deer and keep its heat inside. You can tell when a deer has a good, warm coat when you see it bedding down in winter with a mantle of snow on its back. If the deer were losing heat through its coat, you would see the snow melting. The next time you see a deer carrying snow on its coat, you can be sure it's keeping warm.
Robins. January 9, 2021
Did you know that if there is enough food where robins have been nesting, they will not fly south for the winter? They eat insects and fruit, so they will stay in trees and scrounge for bugs in the bark and berries on bushes. The food will help them store fat during the days to stay warm during the nights. When it's cold, they will fluff up their feathers to trap warm air against their bodies. Only if it is well below zero will they be endangered. So, when you welcome the first robin in the spring, you might wonder if he or she ever left.
Grasshoppers. December 30, 2020
Did you know that a grasshopper hears sounds through a pair of membranes on its abdomen, tucked under its wings? Sound waves will make these membranes vibrate like our own eardrums (tympanal organ) do. In this way, a grasshopper can hear the "song" of its species and locate a like grasshopper for mating.
Mice. December 19, 2020
Did you know that mice are very social and they communicate with each other by leaving a "scent trail" of chemicals called pheromones to help their friends find and follow the right path to their nests?