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Monday, August 18, 2014

A new butterfly species for NBNC!

Washington County's first Wild Indigo Duskywing!
On August 6, while making a phone call on the front porch of the NBNC offices, Chip noticed a small, dark insect fluttering around the driveway. He immediately recognized it as one of the duskywing butterflies, and after running to grab coworkers and camera, it was confirmed to be a Wild Indigo Duskywing… not just a new butterfly for the Nature Center, but a new species for Washington County!

Since an extensive butterfly survey was completed in Vermont in 2007, this is the fourth new species to be added to the Washington County checklist. Wild Indigo Duskywing may be new to central Vermont, but it was not unexpected. The native host plants of this species, Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) and Lupine (Lupinus perennis), formerly restricted the range of this species to southern New England. But in recent years, the Wild Indigo Duskywing has colonized the introduced species Crown Vetch (Securigera varia). Using this new host plant, the species has been expanding its range northward.

West Virginia White
photo by Tom Murray (bugguide.net)
While the Wild Indigo Duskywing seems to have benefited from an introduced plant species, many other butterfly species have suffered. One example is the West Virginia White. This species, active in early spring, uses toothwort as its sole host plant. But in places where the invasive Garlic-mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has been introduced, West Virginia Whites don’t recognize the foreign plant, and lay their eggs on Garlic-mustard rather than toothwort. The caterpillars, unable to feed on garlic-mustard, eventually starve.

Since the initial sighting nearly two weeks ago, Wild Indigo Duskywing has been seen on the property several more times. It seems that this species may be a new permanent resident of North Branch Nature Center. Keep an eye out for this nondescript butterfly in fields and meadows throughout central Vermont and submit your observations to help document the continuing expansion of its range.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

NBNC's First Praying Mantis!

A summer camper shows off his find
It isn't too unusual for us to add a new insect species to our list for the property, but it isn't every day that we add a whole new order!

Summer campers at NBNC found a praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) this week, a first for us and still somewhat rare this far north. They are not a native species, but are certainly an impressive one to see and an exciting one to find!

Wasp Mantidfly
Only one species of praying mantis is found in Vermont, but others (including native species) can be found further south (Florida has 11 mantid species!). The similar-looking Wasp Mantidfly, also present in Vermont, may be confused for a praying mantis but is more closely related to a lacewing than a praying mantis (their raptorial front legs give them a ‘praying’ posture).

With global climate change causing milder winters, it is possible that praying mantis will become more common around NBNC, but for now, this can be considered a pretty unusual find!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wildflower Wednesday #5: The Orchid

The field at NBNC is beautiful this time of year, full of daisies, vetch, black-eyed susan, milkweed, and so many more. Even the first goldenrods are starting to show their color. But it was a very subtle flower that made my day this wildflower Wednesday. I've probably walked by it 100 times without ever seeing it. The Ragged Fringed Orchid may not be obvious as you walk by, but once you find it among the ferns and grasses, it stands out for its beauty and elegance. The flowers emit a fragrance at night that attracts moths such as sphinx moths and owlets.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Candid Caterpillars

A guest post by Scott Maxham

Last week I was out clearing Japanese knotweed from the riverside. Clearing knotweed can be a daunting task. It takes over large areas and deprives other plants of sunlight. While taking a much needed water break, a few feet away from the knotweed patch, I found a spiky surprise. This black red spotted caterpillar looked a bit menacing with the numerous spikes, but I was feeling adventurous and let him crawl into my hands. This caterpillar seemed ginormous after working with the tiny cecropia caterpillars we have been raising at the Nature Center.

Back at the Center Center Chip and I determined that I found a Mourning Cloak Caterpillar. Chip agreed that it was a big caterpillar and would probably be looking to pupate in the near future. Sure enough the next day we found the mourning cloak hanging upside down from the container it now calls home. If you’re interested you can see the mourning cloak pupae here at the Nature Center in our critter room.

The mourning cloak butterfly is one of the first to be seen in the spring. This is because it overwinters as an adult butterfly and does not migrate. They find safe spots in trees or logs to overwinter. The butterfly hibernates and when spring arrives the mourning cloak is ready to find a mate. The mourning cloak is unique in that it remains an adult butterfly for 10 long months. This is much longer than most butterflies live. Most butterflies will live for about a month. Even the migrating monarch butterfly will live a shorter life, usually around 7 to 8 months.
Photo by Jo Ann Poe-McGavin
I was lucky enough to find another caterpillar while out in the field. This caterpillar was a pale green color with an interesting single spike protruding out of it. The official name for this spike is a tentacle. At first sight the tentacle made me think the caterpillar was a mystical unicorn caterpillar. However, further investigation showed that the tentacle was located on the caterpillar’s rear end, not on its head. This time I found a snowberry clearwing caterpillar. The snowberry clearwing seemed content to be out and about so I left him in his natural habitat. I soon regret this when I did some research and found out the turn into a hummingbird like moth.

Yesterday Ken was out and about with the “Incredible Insects” summer camp. While they were out looking for bugs, they found a caterpillar that I consider incredible, but prefers to be called “splendid”. Ken and the kids brought back a pair of splendid dagger moth caterpillars! These caterpillars have a bit of fuzz surrounding them and change from green to brown when they are about to molt. They grow up to be stealthy moths that blend in with tree bark.

All these caterpillars have been a warm-up for the rapidly approaching Live Caterpillar Day at NBNC. This Saturday, July 26, between 11am and 4pm Sam Jaffe from the Caterpillar Lab will be coming to the Nature Center to show off his wonderful caterpillars. If you can’t make it to caterpillar day or can’t wait until Saturday to see caterpillars you can again stop by the critter room at NBNC. The cecropia caterpillars are plentiful and have grown to be much more colorful. Hope to see you Saturday at Caterpillar Day!


Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer Scientists

Last week campers in grades 5th through 8th joined us for a week of scientific research during NBNC's Summer Scientists camp.  We joined a different researcher in the field every day as we learned their methodologies and aided them in their studies.

Sorting BMIs into ice cube trays

We began the week by heading to the Dog River with the UVM Watershed Alliance for some water quality testing.  After testing for dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, and other chemical and physical properties, we cast our nets for some Benthic Macro Invertebrates (river and lake bottom dwelling bugs).  Placing our nets firmly on the bottom of the river, we reached in and began rubbing rocks with our hands on the upstream side of the open nets, hoping to dislodge some critters, which would then be carried by the current into the net.  With many pollution sensitive species such as stonefly and dragonfly larvae combined with favorable chemical and physical test results, we concluded that section of the Dog River was indeed healthy.  Upon our return to the nature center, we dipped our nets one final time along the bend in the North Branch River before heading home.  

Hellgrammite found in North Branch River
Camper holding a baby wood turtle

Day 2 was spent wading in the Worcester section of the North Branch River with local wood turtle guru Mark Powell and his turtle dog Gracie.  Having been skunked last year, we would have been happy with just one turtle but as luck would have it, we found 3!  Gracie the turtle dog sniffed out in the brush one while our keen camper eyes spotted one basking on the bank.  After we helped Mark weigh and measure the turtles, we released them back into the water.  While bending over to return one of the turtles, a camper discovered our 3rd and smallest turtle of the day.  This turtles was less than one year old with its shell only measuring 1 and 3/4 inches!

For our third day, we stayed onsite at NBNC while visiting Chip and Larry at the bird banding station.  We caught several birds that had already been banded in years prior and some that had just hatched this year.  There were common yellowthroats, song sparrows, chestnut-sided warblers, and house wrens.  The highlight though was a species that we had never banded at the nature center... a red-winged blackbird.  Although they are a very common species at the nature center, they tend to stick to the fields and cattails. 

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Petting a Common Yellowthroat

Our week culminated in a full day citizen science adventure in Groton State Forest as we worked to photograph and identify as many species as we possibly could, which we would then add to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies project the VT Atlas of Life.  The goal of this project is to catalog every living species in the state.  So we photographed and identified everything from slugs to flowers, from birds to newts.  No better way to spend a day than exploring the wonderful flora and fauna of Vermont!

Eastern Newt
We found some Blue-eyed Grass while having lunch atop Owl's Head!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Shade for Coffee and a Home for Birds

Chestnut-sided Warbler is
one of the migratory species
that benefits from bird-friendly coffee
A guest post by Scott Maxham:

Birds and coffee don’t seem to have much in common at first thought. Although an early morning birder may beg to differ as waking up at the crack of dawn can be a bit easier with a quick caffeine boost. The connection between birds and coffee is deeper than most realize.

Coffee is a beverage enjoyed by many, but quite often we don’t think about where it was grown. If we do know where it was grown it is most likely to romanticize over the warm location and not how the coffee itself was grown. Unfortunately most coffee plantations clear cut rainforests to make way for the coffee plants. Habitats are destroyed and once pristine forests are no longer standing. This is a big deal because coffee does not require full sun to grow. Interestingly, shade-grown coffee plants produce higher quality beans than sun grown coffee plants.

Bird-friendly coffee can help preserve
forest trees, providing critical habitat.
This in turn means that tropical rainforests don’t need to be cut down. These forests are the overwintering habitats for many of the birds we enjoy and are happy to have nesting in North America. Of course, such forests are home to many other plants and animals. Forests are also great at storing carbon and creating oxygen. Forests prevent erosion and promote healthy water cycles.

Birds and Beans is a brand of coffee that aims to support farmers who grow shade-grown coffee. They seek out these farmers and then sell their coffee to bird-loving coffee drinkers. If you would like to taste this bird friendly coffee, visit our coffee page.

In an effort to determine the benefits shade grown coffee, in terms of bird populations, North Branch Nature Center’s ‘Avian Wonders’ summer camp surveyed the Beidler Family Farm, in Randolph, to see what birds resided there. Other organic and bird-friendly farms were surveyed throughout the U.S. and Central America as part of a project with Birds and Beans… stay tuned for the results!

We encourage you to help the cause by purchasing Birds and Beans coffee for yourself or another coffee drinking friend or family member as part of our buyer's club. It is also small and easy change you can make to protect birds all around the world. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

BirdFest 2014!

Learning how we study birds at the banding station
Earlier this month, over 200 people gathered at North Branch Nature Center to celebrate birds for our 3rd annual BirdFest. It all started at 7:00 a.m. with our early-morning bird walk. Participants scoured treetops and dense shrubs, spying dozens of colorful bird species as they busily built nests and searched for food. A pair of Black-billed Cuckoos inspired “ooo’s and aaah’s” as they perched out in the open for all to see. By 8:00 a.m., some of our early morning participants continued to enjoy the sights and sounds of birds while others made their way to the bird banding station to see avian research up close.

The bird banding station was busy with activity as a wide variety of species were captured and studied. Among the highlights was a Pine Warbler, a species that spends much of its time out of sight in treetops, and a first for us at the banding station! Other captures included chickadees, cardinals, a hummingbird, and a Magnolia Warbler!

Chip shows onlookers a Ruby-throated Hummingbird
just before release
The 9:30 a.m. bird walk with Paula Gills crossed paths with the banding station, where visitors continued to enjoy seeing birds up-close. And at the same time, a multitude of activities were beginning at BirdFest central. Kid’s tent; kestrel box building; live raptors; bird carving demo and workshop… all the action began just before 10:00 a.m.

By 11:00 a.m., early morning bird walk participants were enjoying talks about Bald Eagles and bird photography, while kids were excitedly roaming the area around the house as they explored, carved, built and discovered. By 1:15 p.m. the awards ceremony was underway for our drawing and photo contest participants. Over 50 species later, and seemingly in the blink of an eye, BirdFest was done!

Craig and the Red-tailed Hawk
Arts & crafts at the Kid's Tent
Remy carving some chickadees
Building Kestrel Boxes

Thanks so much to all of our presenters, including Allison from Birds of Vermont Museum for hosting the carving workshop, Remy Lary for a great carving demo, Craig from Outreach for Earth Stewardship for the always-popular live raptor show, John Buck and Tom Berriman for their great presentations, Paula Gills for leading the mid-morning bird walk, and everyone else who helped out in so many ways! And of course, thanks to our BirdFest sponsors for their support!

All photos by Eve Bernhard.