Nature Notes

Please check back periodically for information about our resident animals, wildlife, and other natural phenomenon.

Thanks to Maryland Master Naturalist Debbie Satorius for these articles and photos on . . .

                            The Northern Flicker                            

Colaptes auratus

  • Flickers are strange woodpeckers because they get their food from the ground instead of from a tree. They eat more ants than any other North American Bird; one bird consumed 5,000 ants in one sitting! They also are very useful destroyers of insect pests, including the European corn borers.
  • The Northern Flicker is one of the few woodpeckers that is migratory. Some birds migrate south from northern areas, although a few individuals will remain, as many do in our area.
  • The red-shafted and yellow-shafted forms of the Northern Flicker were once considered different species. These two forms hybridize in a wide zone from Alaska to the panhandle of Texas. The hybrid often has traits from each form. The yellow-shafted flicker is the state bird of Alabama.
  • There are signs the Northern Flicker is in decline due to loss of habitat from deforestation, forest fragmentation and removal of dead standing timber.
  • A group of flickers are collectively known as a “guttering”, “menorah” or “Peterson” of flickers.

                      Fairy Fingers or White Ring Coral                   
                                                  Clavaria vermicularis

·       Fungi come in various shapes and sizes. We usually think of them with caps, but Fairy Fingers grow in clusters of thin white brittle clubs with no branches in moist soil. They are easy to find as they generally grow in clusters.  
·       It is an edible fungus and its flesh is described as tasteless and so delicate that it seems to dissolve in one’s mouth. And its odor has been compared to iodine. They are so brittle and fragile that picking them can be quite a challenge.
·       Fungi are more closely related to animals than plants.

·       Fungi facts:  There are over 70,000 different types of fungi. All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms. Yeast is a type of fungi. We use it to make bread rise. Penicillium comes from another type of fungi that we use to make penicillin, the antibiotic that cures many illnesses. And we use fungus to make cheese and beer.    Not all fungi are so friendly.  Some can cause diseases and others are poisonous.

                                Monarch Butterfly                        

                                                                 Danaus plexipp

  • Monarchs live in North, Central, and South America as well as Australia, some Pacific Islands, India, and Western Europe.
  • A monarch's brilliant coloring tells predators: "Don't eat me. I'm poisonous." The butterflies get their toxins from a plant called milkweed, which is their only food source in the caterpillar stage.
  • Monarchs flap their wings about 5 to 12 times a second, which is about 300 to 720 times a minute.
  • From August-October the Super Generation or last generation of Monarchs are flying more than 3,000 miles to Mexico. The sun is their guide on daily flights, traveling about 50 miles a day. They can ride on thermal air currents, sometimes flying a mile high. When rain splashes down, the wind blows strong or body temperature drops below 86 degrees, they are unable to fly.
  • At the Mexico wintering sites, butterflies roost in trees and form huge groups that may have millions of individuals.

          The Eastern Black Rat Snake          
Pantherophis obsoletus  

Adult Black Rat Snake
v Black rat snakes are one of the longest   snakes in North America,
 occasionally reaching lengths of 8 feet.

v  When threatened, rat snakes will "rattle" their tail, fooling other animals into believing they are venomous.

Like pythons and boas, rat snakes are constrictors. Many believe the constriction is used to keep its prey from breathing and hence causing asphyxiation, but this is not the case. They use it to stop blood from getting to the brain and the animal dies within seconds from ischemia (decreased blood flow).
Juvenile Black Rat Snakes

v These snakes are helpful in controlling the rodent population, which can cause crop destruction and spread

v They are also great swimmers and skillful tree climbers.

v Juvenile rat snakes are quite long, 13 inches, and aren’t
actually black, but mostly gray with irregular spots. As they mature their skin darkens. They are often eaten by hawks and other snakes.

             The Spotted Salamander                
                                             Ambystoma maculatum

Spotted Salamander Eggs
Spotted Salamander Adult

•  At 7 to 9 inches in length, the two rows of yellow and orange spots speckled along       their black backs, give them their name.
•  Common in eastern forests, they make their homes near ponds and vernal pools.         Adults spend most of their day hiding underground or beneath rocks and logs.
•  After hiding all day they leave at night to hunt, they eat just about anything they can     catch and swallow, including worms, spiders, insects, and slugs.
•  Eggs are laid in ponds or vernal pools cased in a jelly-like coating. The coating             helps protect the eggs from predators like fish, turtles, aquatic insects, birds, frogs,       and crayfish. Look for them in ponds  at the end of March.
•  Juveniles live underwater, feeding and growing for up to 4 months, then lose their         gills and climb onto land.  Spotted salamanders can live up to 20 years.

  Pine siskin 
    Spinus sinus
  • The Pine siskin is a wide-spread, gregarious bird that often frequents our area in the winter, as it spends much of its time breeding in the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern United States.
  • It forms large flocks during the nonbreeding season and is commonly attracted to seed feeders. This nomadic finch ranges widely and erratically across the continent each winter in response to the presence of seed crops.
  • These brown-streaked acrobats flash yellow wing markings as they flutter while feeding or as they explode as a group into flight. They are better suited to clinging branch tips than to hopping along the ground.

  •  When cold night temperatures plunge far below zero, they can increase their metabolic rates 40% higher than other songbirds their size.   They can also increase their winter fat 50% more than their Goldfinch relatives.
  •  The oldest Pine siskin was identified to be at least 8 years, 8 months old when it was found in Michigan in 1966, having been banded in Pennsylvania in 1958.

Photos by Debbie Satorius

White -Throated Sparrow
Zonotrichia albicollis

This common winter bird of eastern woodlots, is often found scratching on the ground in small numbers, near bird feeders that are placed close enough to sheltered areas.

They return to northern forests in the spring to sing their clear whistles of ‘Oh-sweet-canada’ and  find a mate. 

Adults may have head stripes of either white or tan, and scientists have found some odd differences in behavior between these two color morphs. Interestingly, they almost always mate with the opposite color morph.

Crisp facial markings make the White-throated Sparrow an attractive winter visitor. There’s the black eyestripe, the white or tan striped crown, the yellow lores-the region between the eye and bill on the side of a bird's head -and the white throat bordered by a black whisker, or malar stripe.

These sparrows readily visit feeders or fallen seeds beneath them.  They feed on millet as well as sunflower seeds.  If you make a brush pile in your yard it will give White-throated Sparrows a place to take cover in between trips out into your yard.

Article and Photos by Debbie Satorius, Maryland Master Naturalist.

Chicken of the Woods Mushroom
Laetiporus sulphureus

Chicken of the Woods is a summer and fall mushroom you might find in our local woods this time of year.  It is a common northeast fungus that is often found in clusters, but occasionally is solitary. It is usually bright orange, but can be more reddish or yellow depending on age and often lightening up in color at the edges.

It is said to be an edible mushroom and a fine chicken substitute as long as you make sure to fully cook the mushroom. But be wary of those that grow on conifers, as they are a different species that can cause poisoning. A good tree can yield 50 pounds of mushrooms.

Chicken of the Woods grows in trees that are either living or  decaying and cause a reddish brown heart-rot of the wood. This  destabilizes the tree by hollowing out its center.

Historically, the former wooden ships of the British Naval Fleet were known to be damaged 
by this fungus.

All Photos by Debbie Satorius

Northern Water Snake       
Nerodia sipedon

    All Photos by Debbie Satorius

·       Averaging at an adult length of 2-4’, this a common snake in Maryland that frequents ponds, streams, lakes and most any wetland habitat.
·       Females are larger than males. Young snakes are born alive from July to September. The litter ranges in size from 4 to 99 offspring. Larger females tend to have larger litters.
·       These snakes are not venomous, but are often mistaken for copperheads or cottonmouths due to their markings.
·       Their colors vary greatly in appearance from gray, tan, buff or brown.  Colors are more vivid in young and wet snakes.
·       They have no heat sensing pits like venomous snakes, their pupils are round  and  their heads are narrow and oval.
·        When threatened they can flatten their bodies and begin to strike and bite furiously while emitting a foul smelling musk.
·        Producing a protein in their saliva that is an anti-coagulant, they can bite and follow the trail of blood to their wounded prey.

 Skunk Cabbage  
Symplocarpus foetidus

·       A moisture loving forest ephemeral
·       More closely related to Jack-in-the-pulpit than cabbage
·       It gets its name from the pungent odor it gives off when 
      any part of the plant is  broken or damaged
·       Flowers in the winter before leaves emerge, attracting 
      gnats and flies that pollinate the flowers and take 
      refuge within the flower structure. Often flowers 
      in February.
·       Food for snails and slugs as well as ruby tiger 
      moth and cattail borer moth caterpillars
·       Contain crystals of calcium oxalate, making them toxic 
      to most animals, yet hungry snapping turtles and 
      bears have been seen eating the leaves in spring

Photo Credit:  Debbie Satorius

Feeds winter pollinators.

Flowers through the snow.

Spring leaves.

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