As I did fall clean up recently, I heard the unmistakable peck, peck, peck of a woodpecker. It took some time, but finally I found the source: a female downy woodpecker on the trunk of a ponderosa pine.
There are more than 200 species of woodpeckers in the world; 23 of them live in North America. The smallest of those is the downy woodpecker. This bird survives in a wide variety of habitats across the continent and it does not migrate, though the ones in more northern regions move down into valleys in the winter. Also in the winter, downy woodpeckers often join a mixed flock of birds including nuthatches and chickadees which are about the same size as downys. They do this so they have to spend less time on the lookout for predators and have better luck finding food sources. Teamwork!
The downy woodpecker’s size allows it to access food sources that larger woodpeckers cannot, including inside plant stalks and tiny branches. One common source is goldenrod where they look for fly larvae. Sexism is alive and well among these woodpeckers. Males take the more productive food sites such as small branches and the stems of weeds. Females are left to forage on larger branches and the trunks of trees.
Interestingly these birds do not sing. Instead, they drum. The drumming is used to establish a territory and to attract a mate. They also make calls, which sound like chirps.
Photo Credit: Christian Gloor from Wakatobi Dive Resort, Indonesia
Meet the leaf sheep – it is neither sheep nor leaf. It is a sea slug! And it is likely the most adorable slug you will ever see. But what makes this slug amazing is not its appearance. Leaf sheep are multi-cellular animals that live in the sea. They can also photosynthesize sunlight for food!
This unusual species has beady black eyes and the face of a sheep, albeit a small one – the slugs themselves are only 1 cm long. They also have rhinophores (new word!) on top of their heads that look like ears or horns. These rhinophores give leaf sheep their sense of smell and ability to find food. Their bodies are clad in what looks like leaves, called cerata (new word #2!). These cerata are similar to the leaves of succulent plants, like zebra succulents or aloe.
Okay, but on to the photosynthesizing – here’s how it works. Leaf sheep graze on algae as sheep-sheep would graze on grass. As they do, they take in the chloroplasts from the cells of the algae and store the chloroplasts in the cerata. The chloroplasts are what contain the chlorophyll and allow photosynthesis to take place. So not only do leaf sheep eat algae, they supplement their diet through photosynthesis. The process of taking the chloroplasts from the algae and storing it is called kleptoplasty (another new word!). And yes, the root of this word is “klepto,” from the Greek word for thief. In other words, leaf sheep steal the undigested chloroplasts from the algae. If humans were able to do this, we’d eat a salad, store the chloroplasts in our system, then sit in the sun to make more food. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of being solar powered.
Boreal Frog (Photo Credit – Bryant Olsen)
In the spring I always welcome the croaks, peeps, and chirps of frogs and toads. As fall progresses toward winter, the songs fade. But where do the frogs and toads go? They are, after all, cold-blooded. Alaskan wood frogs actually freeze. No heartbeat. No blood flow. No movement. Nothing. As temperatures drop, their body flush with glucose produced in the liver, protecting the cells. It’s like having your own special antifreeze in your blood. In the spring the frogs thaw and hop away as if nothing’s happened, even though up to seven months may have passed!
Aquatic frogs drop to the bottom of their pond or other body of water. They don’t burrow in the mud though, they just hang out there to pass winter. Terrestrial frogs are a different story. These guys must burrow deep enough to get below the frost line or find cavities or crevices to squeeze into. This might include compost piles, in a beaver dam, in a mammal burrow, or in a gap between rocks. These frogs have the natural antifreeze, too, to help with extreme cold.
No matter the strategy, frogs and toads enter a state of torpor, a state of decreased activity when the heart rate and metabolism slow, and the body temperature drops. Among mammals this is called hibernation. But for frogs and toads, and other cold-blooded animals, this state is called brumation. Unlike hibernating mammals, amphibians and reptiles do not consume great amounts of calories to prepare for the winter. Their metabolism drops so low during the torpor that they cannot digest anything during this time. Brumation is triggered by cooler temperatures and fewer hours of daylight. Even in winter, these animals will move about on warmer days.
A week or so ago we had cold weather and snow. The calendar turned to November. At that time I decided it was okay to stop bringing the bird feeder in every night. The bears were hibernating, right? Wrong.
As I worked at home one cool morning, I heard crunching as something passed by our kitchen windows. I figured the sound was from deer, regular visitors to our yard. But what I glimpsed was much stockier than any deer I’ve ever seen. Lower to the ground. And furrier. A big black bear! And lucky for me, it came right up to the window by my desk. And the bird feeder? The bear wasn’t interested.
Black bears do not hibernate because of the cold but because their natural food sources (berries, insects, nuts, etc.) are no longer available. While they are preparing to hibernate, one bear consumes about 20,000 calories per day (fun fact – bears can smell food five miles away!). Based on the size of my visitor, it was right on track.
When black bears do hibernate, their metabolism and heart rate slow to about 50% of their waking rate. This conserves energy. During this time of torpor, they do not drink or eat for about 200 days. They don’t even use the bathroom! Scientists debate whether bears are actually true hibernators because they will wake up if they are disturbed. In addition, pregnant females awaken to give birth, and then to nurse. Some bears will even wake up, wander around, and then return to their den.
I’ve watched for that bear every day since its visit, but I suspect now it’s settled in for a long winter’s nap.
From a distance it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a nuthatch and a chickadee. The nuthatch is the one climbing down the tree headfirst or upside down on a branch. They are able to do this because of their strong toes and the large claws on their backward-facing toes.
These nuthatches use their strong feet to find insects and their larvae and eggs in the summer, and then nuts and seeds in the winter. In addition, these birds will cache food in the crooks and crevices of trees to save for times when food is scarce. They earned their name, “nuthatch,” because sometimes seeds or nuts are hard to break into. To solve this problem, these birds wedge the seed or nut into the bark of a tree to hold it in place, then hack at it with their beaks. That action is called “hatching.”
When nesting, a pair of red-breasted nuthatches usually digs out a cavity in a dead tree; the lazy (or smart?) ones use an old woodpecker hole. Once the cavity is excavated, they build a nest cup using grasses, mosses, and even shredded bark. They’ve even been known to steal nesting materials from other birds. But the coolest thing about their nests is the finishing touches they put on once they’re done. Red-breasted nuthatches smear the entrance to their nest with globs of resin from coniferous trees (their preferred habitat). Sometimes they carry the resin in their beaks. Other times they will carry it on stick or piece of bark and use it like an applicator! The nuthatches do this to keep out other birds, small mammals, and insects. When they want to get inside, the nuthatches just dive right through the hole.
Photo Credit – NPS, Jacob W. Frank
I’ve lived in Colorado for a long time now and had never seen a snowshoe hare. This summer I saw two. At first glance they look a lot like the cottontails in my yard. Except the snowshoe hares were much stockier, and of course had much larger feet. And though rabbits and hares are cousins, they are quite different species. Snowshoe hares are born with a full fur coat and with their eyes open; leverets (baby hares!) are ready to start hopping around on their own within hours of birth. Baby rabbits, called kits, are born naked, blind, and helpless. Snowshoe hares also tend to be loners, while most rabbits live in underground warrens in groups.
One thing that made think of the snowshoe hares today is the season’s first snowfall. When I saw the snowshoe hares in the summer, their coats were the color of the rocks and sticks. But unlike rabbits, the hares change coats for the season. They are a little like changing leaves in this way! In the summer, the long, sunny days trigger the production of melatonin; that’s what creates their brownish fur and the camouflage for the summer season. But when the days get shorter and there is less sunlight, the production of melatonin is no longer triggered (side note: this transformation takes approximately 70 days). Thus without the color, their fur returns to white. Hopefully they are totally white now to help them stay camouflaged. And of course those huge broad feet will help them move around easily on the snow.
The combination of an unusually wet spring and an extended summer have produced a grasshopper boom in Colorado. Right now the trails and sidewalks are literally hopping with grasshoppers. Apparently we can blame climate change.
The abundance of grasshoppers still enjoying the fall with the rest of us made me wonder what happens to them in the winter. As it turns out, all those grasshoppers are currently enjoying their “golden years.” Like katydids, the adults will not survive the cold winter. They have, however, laid eggs. In late summer, female grasshoppers deposit their eggs in leaf litter or soil. She covers them in a sticky substance that sets and forms an egg pod. Females may lay as many as 25 pods depending on species. Each pod contains dozens of rice-shaped eggs and is resistant to moisture and cold that will survive the winter.
When the eggs do hatch in the spring, after about 10 months, they emerge as nymphs which look like mini versions of the adults. The difference at this point is that they lack wings and reproductive organs. Over the coming weeks the nymphs will molt several times ultimately developing into full-fledged adults looking for a mate to start the whole process all over again.
There are more than 10,000 known species of grasshoppers in the world, living on every continent except Antarctica. They are also among the oldest insects on Earth, having evolved more than 200 million years ago.
Fall colors are way more complicated than I ever knew. The truth about orange and yellow leaves is that those pigments are always present in the leaves. It’s in their DNA. However, during the spring and summer months they are so flooded with chlorophyll (which helps them convert sunlight into energy) they appear green. In other words, chlorophyll masks the true colors. Then in the fall, when the days are shorter and cooler (sigh), trees stop producing chlorophyll. That’s when the leaves’ true colors are revealed.
Red leaves are a different story. That pigment is not there throughout spring and summer. Instead, as sugars get trapped in the leaves as a result of the changing season, a chemical changes occur and produce the new red pigments (called anthocyanins for those wanting a new word today).
Another factor that affects leaf color and how long we get to enjoy the fall colors, is weather. The short version is that optimal weather produces optimal colors for a longer period of time. Picture your perfect fall day: warm and sunny, followed by a crisp, cool (but not freezing) night. That’s optimal. The reason is because low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, thus allowing leaves’ colors to shine. Bright sunshine also apparently breaks down chlorophyll. During the summer chlorophyll breaks down and is regenerated continuously in tree leaves. But in the fall, nights grow longer and chlorophyll production slows; eventually not enough chlorophyll is produced to replace that broken down by the sun, again allowing the color to come through.
The bottom line is that there are a variety of factors that effect leaf color. But, a warm and wet spring followed by moderate summer weather and then warm fall days and cool night, produce the most brilliant colors.
Today I learned from firsthand experience that turkeys are quite curious and are attracted to shiny things. And by “attracted” I mean they peck at shiny things. I met the small rafter of pecking offenders (yes, a group of turkeys is referred to as a rafter, gaggle, or flock) today at a small animal sanctuary near me. These animals are rescues that cannot be released into the wild, but are living their best life on the farm.
Turkey bird, animal photography. Free public domain CC0 image.
Pecking aside, I was immediately interested in their flapping wattles and an array of red fleshy bumps on their heads and necks. Those bumps are called caruncles (new word!). And technically speaking, the wattle is also a type of caruncle. Both play a role in helping turkeys stay cool since they do not have sweat glands. In addition, the wattle is important in mating – a brighter red wattle on males attracts more attention from females. And just to add to our turkey vocabulary, the fleshy appendage that hangs over the beak of turkeys is called a snood.
My dive into turkey research also revealed that turkeys can run (up to 18 mph!), fly, and swim. And not only do turkeys gobble, they also purr, yelp, and cluck. The gobbler turkeys (adult males) mate with multiple females then return to his own bachelor rafter and leave the chick-rearing to the females. Those chicks? They hatch fully feathered with their eyes open. Within hours of hatching they can chase after mom. Okay, one more word – a young turkey is called a poult.
We had a visitor the other day – a katydid in the kitchen. It was hanging out near the sink where we have a potted green onion plant. It’s a beautiful and elegant creature with long thin legs, even longer and thinner antennae (that can be 2-3 times the length of the insect’s body!), and a body that looks exactly like a leaf. Nature’s good like that – if this katydid hadn’t been in my kitchen, it would have been perfectly camouflaged in a tree.
Of course our visitor prompted a few questions on my part. So, yes, research. Did you know that there are more than 6,400 different species of katydids, living on every continent except Antarctica in a variety of habitats? And while most are green like my visitor, they come in many different colors, shapes, and patterns to match their environment. They are also nocturnal, which may explain why our visitor disappeared late morning. Either that or it was tired of being watched.
I had considered carefully taking the katydid outside since that’s where it belongs. But that brought up the question, what do katydids do in the winter? Well, in Colorado and places with a similar climate, they die (in warmer climates they may live a couple of years). Around here, females lay and bury their eggs in soil, bark, or plant stems in late summer or early fall. The adults die in the first freeze and the eggs survive the winter. In the spring they hatch as nymphs. At that point they look like mini-adults, except they don’t yet have wings. As they grow they shed their exoskeletons several times, which is known as an incomplete metamorphosis. During the last molt they get their wings and are full fledged adults.
So did I take the katydid outside? No. I decided to let it live out its days in relative warmth. Who knows, it may even survive the winter.