Sunday, August 18, 2019

August 18, 2019: A rare bat sighting

I saw my first bat of the summer this week.  The New Hampshire bat population has taken a dramatic hit from white nose syndrome, wiping out 90% of the little brown bat population in the northeast.  [Ref:  Sierra Club]
Bat with white-nose syndrome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

White-nose syndrome is a non-native fungus which most likely arrived from Europe.  [Ref:  American Society for Microbiology]  The bat I saw was much larger than the ones we used to see by the dozen every night.  We would toss a pebble in the air and two or three of them would swoop towards it as they picked up the object on their sonar.  Most likely the bat I saw was a big brown bat which is less affected by white-nose syndrome and which may be increasing in population as the little brown bats have disappeared.

In a timely occurrence with Andrew Timmins' bear presentation at the Lake Wicwas Annual Meeting, there have been several bear sightings around the lake in the past two weeks, two of which were seen along Chemung Rd.
A Black Bear I saw near the lake last year.

There are still lots of blueberries on the bushes, and the black cherries and hobblebush viburnum are now ripening, all of which attract the bears.
Black Cherries
Hobblebush Viburnum

The good berry season will help fatten these eating machines up for the winter.

A couple of Kayakers saw two bears on Sheep Island on Thursday partaking in the blueberry crop.  We met them (the kayakers, not the bears) when we were collecting samples for water testing with two members of the NH Department of Environmental Services, Ari Libenson, DES intern, and Clark Freise, DES Assistant Commissioner.
Dave Thorpe and Ari collect a water sample while Clark Freise (left) and I "assist".   Photo by Marge Thorpe

We collected water samples from several locations around the lake and from depths of 30 feet up to the surface.  The testing provides data for many important water quality factors including dissolved oxygen, transparency, pH, E. coli, and phosphorus.  Last year's testing indicated the water quality in Lake Wicwas remains good, with the only areas of concern being pH and phosphorus.
Summary of 2018 water testing

This years results will be posted soon - you can find all of last year's results as well as historical data going back 13 years on the Lake Wicwas website or by clicking here.  Special thanks go to Dave and Marge Thorpe for once again providing aquatic transportation for the collection, and for their ongoing support of the Volunteer Lake Assessment Progam (VLAP) and their commitment to water quality in New Hampshire.
Dave and Marge Thorpe with Ari on their boat "Wicwas"

Finally, our loon parents continue to be very dedicated to protecting their two chicks, Harley and Davidson, from the many other loons on the lake.  We regularly hear wild calls when they are defending them from some intruder.  Bill Mackie was able to capture some amazing video of the effort these birds put into driving competitors away from the chicks.  You can watch it here at this link.

Thank you Bill for sharing this unique experience!  It's no wonder these birds eat so much considering the calories they must consume in these battles, including some pretty big fish.
One of the parents swallows a good size sunfish.
Down it goes.
How would you like that stuck in your throat!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

August 11, 2019: Acorn Pip Gall Wasp

Sometimes you learn more than you really bargained for, like how long it takes for an acorn to develop.

Has anyone noticed these little seed-like objects on the ground under oak trees, or perhaps on a dock that's under an oak tree?  They are about a quarter of an inch long.
Is this a seed?

That's where I saw them starting over a week ago, and had no idea what they were.  Looking kind of like of a pointy corn kernel, I thought they might be a seed from some nearby tree.  But then I received an email from the UNH Extension Service (you can sign up to get these sent to you - they are full of timely and useful information for gardeners) which included a picture of these very items - talk about timely!  Here's a picture of an acorn I found with the tell-tale mark of the acorn pip gall wasp.
Red oak acorn with hole from the gall.

That gave me a name and a starting point to figure out what they are all about.  It turns out that they are a type of gall, other types of which I have mentioned before (June 2014 and June 2016).  These galls are from the acorn pip gall wasp (Callirhytis operator) which has a strange life cycle.  The gall is the home of a tiny larva which was placed in a developing acorn last year.  I split one gall open;  inside was an even tinier, round, hard shell.  Cutting that open I found the little grub-like larva.
A larva in the palm of my hand.
The larva is about 3 millimeters long.

Left alone, this larva would emerge in the spring as an adult wasp.  But what's interesting is every one of them will be female.  These females don't need to mate - they just go and lay their eggs in a flower of an oak tree.  Then in mid-summer those eggs hatch and a second batch of adult insects emerges, and these are both male and female.  These guys mate, and the females go lay their eggs in a developing acorn (that actually began growing the prior year).  The eggs cause the tree to form the galls which are now laying on the ground under our oak trees.  It's a fabulous evolutionary defense mechanism - the insect makes the tree build a shield around the egg which protects it from predators.  [Ref:  Bug Tracks  - there is more information at that link.]  Though I didn't find any galls still in an acorn, I did find acorns from which the gall had been present as shown by the small hole just under the cap.
The hole left after the pip falls out.

In the process of figuring this all out I learned that it takes two seasons for an acorn to grow and mature - I never knew that.

It certainly doesn't take that long for loons to mature, as Harley and Davidson are growing by leaps and bounds now.
Harley appears to be well over half the size of its parents.

Well, actually, it does take that long, and longer.  Our twin loons - if they survive the summer - will spend two years out on the ocean before they return to fresh water lakes, and may not mate for another three or four years.

I can understand how they are growing so fast when I saw the size of the fish they are being fed now.  On one fishing trip this week a parent came up with a fish so large I thought surely the parent would eat it itself.
Dinner coming up!

But no.  After tiring the fish out, over to a chick it swam and passed the fish over.
"Think you can handle this one junior?"

And the chick had no problem swallowing the beast right down its stretched-out throat.
"I'll give it a try"
"Now chew your food carefully"
"No problem dad"

The other chick looked on enviously waiting for its turn.  Seems like a fish that large could nourish one of the twins for a whole day.
"Find me a big one mom!"    -    "I'm looking..."

One chick has been exhibiting teenage behavior, straying far away from its parents for long periods of time, resulting in numerous concerned observers (myself included) when seeing the parents and only one chick.  But as of yesterday, both chicks are still intact.  So far things are looking good for the Wicwas loon family.

And finally, oh no, can this be happening already?

Friday, August 2, 2019

August 2, 2018: Lake Wicwas Becomes a Battleground

I'm posting early this week so people will receive it before the Lake Wicwas Annual Meeting tomorrow, Saturday, August 3rd (9:30 am at the Wicwas Grange on Meredith Center Road.)

Lake Wicwas became a battle ground this week and we learned again just how harsh nature can be, and the impact of humans as well.  Tom Crane, a resident on the north shore of the lake, described a horrific lesson on the territorial behavior of loons.  In front of Tom's house, two people experienced a fight between two loons which was described as nothing less than "brutal".  When it was over a seriously injured loon swam to the shoreline to recuperate, clearly the loser of the fight.  But a few days later, a dead loon was found against a nearby shoreline.  Tom collected it and was relieved that it was not banded, indicating it was neither parent of the chicks.  The Loon Preservation Committee came to pick it up and have already performed a necropsy to determine the specific cause of death:  although the bird did suffer from injuries from the fight, the primary cause of death was lead poisoning.  (Loons ingest small stones to help with digestion in their stomachs, and they frequently collect small lead fishing sinkers and jigs which look like stones, and which quickly kill them).

One can only speculate on the motivation of the fight, and if the attacking loon recognized the weakened state of the poisoned bird and took advantage of that.  Was the victim our rogue loon "Solo" that has been on the lake for several years now, and one of the parents of Harley and Davidson decided this was its chance to eliminate it?  Was it a bird from the other pair on the lake?    Or maybe it was just a visiting loon that stopped here in its weakened state to rest.  We may never know, but if Solo, who has been spending a lot of time in Marion Cove the past few years never reappears, that might be a clue.  All we know for sure is there is one less loon in New Hampshire, that lead fishing tackle is responsible for 44% of loon deaths [Ref:  Concord Monitor, July 18, 2019], and that these beautiful, majestic birds will fight literally to the death over territory, offspring, or some other reason.

I had my own little battle over in the blueberry bushes this week.  I was picking berries on some high-bush blueberry plants when I noticed a lot of bare branches - areas that were completely denuded of leaves.
A blueberry bush stripped of its leaves

I knew something had to be eating them so I searched around a bit and soon enough came across a bunch of brightly colored but not very pleasant looking caterpillars.
Yellow-necked Caterpillars (Datana ministra)

There were two colonies on this plant, as well as some on another bush I saw.

I found a little information on these insects, including that the behavior of lifting up both their head and tail when disturbed is common.  [Ref:  UNH Extension Service].  I don't know if that successfully scares off predators, but to me it certainly makes them look threatening.

The adult moth is just a typical, medium-sized brown moth, but it does have a reddish head.
Adult moth.  Photo Credit:  John Pickering, Discover Life
It appears that birds don't eat the caterpillars or the moths, but some, such as robins, do eat the pupae.  Also "predaceous bugs and parasitic flies may also attack this species."  [Ref:  Penn State University Extension Service]  The caterpillars are damaging to orchards, and blueberries are one of their preferred host trees.  UNH says spot spraying is the best control method, but not on blueberry plants or any other tree with edible fruit, in which case it's best to pick them off by hand.  And then feed them to the fish.  And eventually the loons.  The circle of life goes on....

Which brings us back to Harvey and Davidson, which are getting bigger and starting to look less chick-like as they get gray-brown feathers and a white chest.  But we now know there is never a time in their lives when we can be certain they are safe.
Starting to look loon-like.
And starting to grow tiny flight feathers on their wings.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

July 28, 2019: Berry Season

Berry season is in full swing right now in the Lakes Region.  The blueberries have been especially productive this year, perhaps due to a perfect combination of hot sunny weather and sufficient rain.

We're probably just past peak around Lake Wicwas, so get them now before they're gone.  They should be plentiful farther north and at higher altitudes for a bit longer;  I was up in the Belknap Mountains last week and the bushes were loaded with berries.

Strawberry season is just about over but you may still find local berries at the farm stands.  And the cherries are starting to ripen, but the wild black cherries, though edible, aren't worth the effort in my book. 
These black cherries will turn black when ripe - if the birds and bears don't eat them first.

And of course, the u-pick berries will be available for several more weeks, so there's still plenty of opportunity to get those local, fresh, nutrient-rich little beauties for your breakfast fruit or your dessert treats.

We spent part of this week at a beautiful lake in Maine, up near the town of Belfast on Penobscot Bay.
Lake Quantabacock

We had a great visit with wonderful hosts and were treated to a summer's worth of lake life - sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, a lake tour, and just visiting in a gorgeous setting.  (And of course, lobster.)

Lake Quantabacook is similar in many ways to Lake Wicwas, complete with its own pair of loons, but there is one significant difference:  Quantabacook has nesting bald eagles.
This eagle nest is huge - well over six feet across.

One of the highlights of the trip was seeing the eaglet - thanks to Linda's sharp eye - though it was pretty darn big already.
The eaglet was a couple of trees away from the nest so it is likely flying now and should probably be called a fledgling.

We didn't see either of the parents so they must have been off fishing elsewhere, perhaps in Belfast Harbor or at the nearby Passagassawakeag River.  (And we think Winnipesaukee is difficult!) 
Belfast Harbor

A bald eagle doesn't fully mature and earn its trademark white head and tail for five years, so if you see a very large (six foot-plus wingspan) raptor but it doesn't have the classic look of a bald eagle, it may well be an immature bald eagle.  It's good to know that loons can survive on a lake right underneath an eagle nest and still find a way to raise a family. 

And that brings us to Lake Wicwas's loons.  I had a very disconcerting moment when I went out for a paddle on Lake Wicwas today after returning from Maine.  I came upon a single loon swimming along looking every which way with a small minnow hanging from its beak.

It swam right up to my kayak, clearly looking for a chick to feed.

That's never a good sign and I feared the worst as there was no sign of a chick to be seen.  So I went on my way fearing another chick casualty, but 15 minutes later, way over on the other side of the lake I saw three floating objects, and as I got closer I could see it was the rest of the loon family.
Harley and Davidson, probably with mom, after giving me a scare.

I don't know how or why they got so separated, but all seems to be well, and it gives me more confidence that Harley and Davidson might make it, but there's still a long way to go.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

July 21, 2019: The Dogs Come Early

Wow, what a weekend!  The dog days of summer started early this year in the Lakes Region.  Usually this kind of weather doesn't hit until August, but this week we had dew points into the 70s and temps well into the 90s.  The peak temperature was 95.7 on Saturday with a dew point of 72.
Hot summer nights

On a cooler morning at the boat ramp a few weeks ago I had a neat experience which got superseded by all the loon activity the past few weeks:  I got to observe the courting behavior of a pair of downy woodpeckers.
Mr. and Mrs. Downy

The pair was searching for insects on the trees right around the boat launch, probing into all the potential places for insects to hide out.
Where are you ants?
This looks like a good spot.

The male (with the bright red spot on the back of its head) seemed to be leading the way with the female following along a bit behind.
"Where are you going!" she asks.

When the male found a potential spot it worked it for a while until it pulled an insect out.

But rather than eat it, it did something rather kind.
Trying to win her over!

It brought it right to its mate and gave it to her!

This is a known behavior as part of courtship for several species of birds; perhaps the feeding helps to convince the female that he will be a good provider for a future family.  For downy woodpeckers an interesting aspect of mating is that both male and female will search for a nesting site and must agree on a suitable tree.  [Ref:  Stokes, Donald and Lillian, "A Guide to Bird Behavior" Vol II, Little, Brown and Compay, 1983.]  If they can come to terms they will both excavate a nest, but if they can't agree on a tree they most likely will not mate.  I witnessed a few more feedings before they moved beyond my line of sight, but probably not far.

If they have agreed on a nesting tree they tend to stay close by to guard their site.

A quick update on Harley and Davidson - both chicks continue to advance in size and skill.  Although they mostly stick their heads underwater and watch as their parents dive for fish, they do occasionally dive themselves.  They seem to like going in very close to shore at a shallow beach, and the parents watch them very closely there, calling them back out to deeper water at the slightest concern.  It will be interesting to see when they are able to catch their own fish.
Harley and Davidson like to go right up the shore here.  (Some will recognize that canoe!)

We also had a scare this week.  One morning the family came by with only one chick in tow.  They fished for 20 minutes without a sign of the second and they didn't show a hint of distress.  Half an hour later we had a report from someone else that they also had seen only one chick.  But then in another hour the report came in that both chicks were back with the parents.  What are those parents thinking, leaving their kids unsupervised all that time!

As expected, the second pair of loons finally gave up and abandoned their nest.  It looks like Harley and Davidson will have to carry the torch for Wicwas this summer.

The Annual Loon Census took place yesterday and though we didn't have the loon overload of last week, there were eight loons that appeared for the census.  Citizenship questions were not asked.  😉
Mom (?) and the kids during the census
Dad was probably off keeping the other loons far away.

I'll end this week with a pretty butterfly that was sucking nectar out of the black-eyed susans (which are having a banner year).
American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
This is an American Painted Lady.  In these next two you can see its proboscis inserted deep into the flower.

The susan's must be loving all the heat this summer.  Keep cool!