June 9, 2017

Heron of the Night

By Dave Erler

The first time I heard the call of a Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nyticorax nyticorax) I was about eight years old. It was just after an evening of fishing for Black Crappies on a lake in Minnesota. I remember it happened as I loitered along the shore after my father, older sister, and younger brother had all headed back the trail through the woods. A loud guttural “quock” sound came from overhead and although I don’t think I was scared I do know it startled me. I had no idea what made the call. I didn’t hear l that cry again until some 14 years later, but I knew immediately I had heard it before. At that time I was working for the University of Minnesota Extension Service at a summer youth camp near a Minnesota lake. I was with a group 10 to 14-year-old farm kids. The sound scared the bejesus out of some of the kids. They, of course, immediately wanted to know what it. Being the “nature specialist” I suddenly felt pressure to supply an answer. I have to admit I still didn’t know what it was. I knew it wasn’t an owl and I knew it wasn’t the low-pitched “croak croak” of the Great Blue Heron. I responded that it was just the call of a “water bird,” which seemed to reassure the kids that it wasn’t anything too dangerous. That incident gave me incentive to find my set of Peterson birdsong tape cassettes.

Since both times I had heard the sound it was at night, near a lake, clearly came from above, and was similar to the call of Great Blue Herons I’d heard when they were flying overhead, I figured I should start there. Sure enough, the guide with my Peterson tapes listed my options. I picked the cassette with bird calls from Loons and other water birds and slipped it into the tape player. I pushed the button to fast forward, randomly stopped it, and pushed the play button. Low and behold by pure luck the very same call I had heard came from the speaker. I hit the stop button, put it into rewind for two seconds, and the monotone voice identifying the calls put a name to the mystery call.
Black-crowned Night-Herons are small, squat, chubby herons with thick necks, rather large heads and heavy pointed bills. As their name suggests, the adults have distinct well-defined black crowns as well as black backs with contrasting white undersides. Their legs are shorter than the larger Great Blue Herons’ are.  In flight their short legs barely reach the end of the tail. While in the air they hold their heads back against their bodies making them appear to have no neck. Like most herons, they have a rather slow, steady wing beat on broad, rounded wings.
Black-crowned Night-Herons are found across much of North America and on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Although not as commonly seen as the more familiar Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons are probably the second most common heron in North America. Due to their nocturnal habits they are not often seen. During the day they usually find shelter by perching in trees, hidden among the foliage, often in groups. In the evening and night they forage in marshes or along the edges of lakes and streams. Their dagger-like pointed beaks are serrated, allowing them to snatch and hold slippery prey including fish, crawfish, frogs, tadpoles, and water snails. Once they catch their prey they swallow it whole.
When you visit the Science Center this year make sure to visit the Celebrate Birds Exhibit. The attached aviary will be a “heronry” displaying several species of herons, including an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron. If you visit over the course of the summer you will notice a change as it molts from its immature brownish, streaked feathers to its very different adult plumage. Like most of the birds that live here, this bird is non-releasable. It (he or she – it’s hard to tell) arrived from a wildlife rehabilitation center in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where it was treated, but deemed non-releasable due to a wing injury limiting its flight ability.

In the years since I first heard those guttural “quock” calls, I still have only seen Black-crowned Night Herons perhaps a half dozen times. But to this day I have yet to hear another one call, but rest assured if I do, I will know what made that sound in the night.

May 10, 2017

Stories to Tell – Guess Who Came to Dinner?

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

We’ve all experienced it. A fresh set of tracks in the snow. The first question you ask yourself is… Whose track is this? This leads to a number of other questions. Where did it come from? Where was it going? What happened here? These questions often remain unanswered unless we can track the animal, we have a camera in the location, and we’re lucky. This is one such occasion with an amazing answer.

It was a cold, late winter morning and a light snow was falling as I plodded through the woods. Occasionally my feet broke through the snow’s crust and I’d sink in up to my calves. “Not a day to skip wearing snowshoes,” I chided myself, but I was more than halfway to my destination. I was eager to check the final trail camera of the day and see what it had recorded over the past month.

I hiked over the last rise and saw the log where I had secured a chicken carcass in February. The location was 15 feet from the camera. I was surprised to find there was no sign of the chicken. It was completely gone. “What took it?” I wondered. I walked over and looked around. No visible signs of feathers or bones, although they might have been covered by the recent snow. The only clues were obscured footprints and marks in the snow I could not identify. It was obvious there had been recent activity but it seemed that the camera might be the only witness. The snow continued to fall as I changed the camera card and headed back to my office to upload the information to the computer.

Once at my desk, the story of the missing chicken and the disturbance in the snow played itself out on my computer screen. The first animals to investigate the chicken carcass were a pair of raccoons. They arrived at dawn two days after I had put the bird out. They sniffed and pawed at the feathers before one took some bites and claimed the chicken as its own. It stood on the frozen body keeping the other raccoon at a distance. This lasted for 30 minutes until they left, perhaps because the morning sun was too bright.

Twelve hours later the two raccoons returned. Again only one animal fed; apparently the larger one was dominant. The second raccoon circled and wandered just out of reach looking for an opportunity to find something to eat. This behavior lasted for an hour before they left. I found this surprising since the time stamp on the last image of the raccoons read 7:20 p.m. They should have had plenty of time for them to continue feeding. The next image held the answer. A coyote came into view 50 minutes later.

The coyote was interested in the chicken but hesitated because of the infrared flash from the trail camera. It paced back and forth and circled the area maintaining a distance of 10 to 25 feet from the bird but never came closer. Then the coyote suddenly left. I stopped advancing the images. This seemed strange. Why didn’t the coyote feed? It seemed rather odd but I had read that coyotes are cautious when exposed to a new or unfamiliar food situation. But what animal was responsible for the missing chicken?

The next images answered my question. Thirty minutes after the first coyote left a second coyote entered the area. This animal was much larger and more confident. It walked directly to the chicken and assessed the situation. In less than two minutes, it determined the camera was no threat, sniffed the chicken, and set to work. It made quick progress severing the chicken from the anchors holding it to the log. Forty five minutes after it arrived, the coyote carried its frozen prize off into the night. I was amazed at how quickly the coyote removed the bird. I was excited to have an answer. But as I looked at the image I realized I had only a partial answer. I now knew what had taken the chicken, but I had no idea what animal left all the tracks and marks in the snow when I checked on the camera. All the images up until this point occurred on ice and a small patch of snow under the logs. When I removed the camera card in the morning, the entire area was blanketed with snow except for the slowly filling tracks. I was so immersed in what was happening I forgot to consider the surroundings. I thought I had an answer to my original questions, but now I realized I had only half the story. So I continued looking through the images.

An hour after the large coyote left with the chicken, a smaller coyote cautiously approached and circled the site from a distance of 30 feet or more. I assumed that it was the first coyote as it seemed to be the same size and exhibited the same behavior as before. It continued in this manner for five minutes and then left. It returned an hour later but only for a minute before it left again.

Four hours later, at 6 am a barred owl landed among the feathery remains. It pecked at the ground for a moment or two and then departed into the early morning darkness. The entire visit took a little more than one minute.

It was now three days after the chicken was initially placed, according to the time stamp on the progression of images, but even though the bird was gone, the site continued to be visited over the next 18 days. Several coyotes, two raccoons, and a gray fox all looked to see if there were any remains worth eating, but all left shortly after arriving.

I paused realizing I still did not have an answer to my second question. How were the markings left in the snow? As I continued looking at the images I noticed snow had covered the ice three days prior. Then the day before I arrived to switch the camera cards the puzzle was solved. Early in the morning a coyote visited the site. It seemed nervous by the infrared flash of the camera but seemed intent on approaching the location where the chicken had been. The ground was covered by several new inches of snow and there were no obvious signs to draw the animal in. Yet the coyote continued to warily approach. I thought that this must be the same coyote that had showed up the first night. It spent 12 minutes trying to overcome its anxiety. The coyote paced back and forth, dug at the snow behind one of the logs, bounded to one side, went back to dig some more, bounded away again, dug a third time, backed away, bit a low hanging branch in displaced frustration, and dug again until it finally came up with a small scrap of food. It took a few steps away, fed, and went back to anxiously digging and backing away for several minutes longer before it eventually left.


I looked at the final camera image of me as I stood at the site, looked at the marks in the snow and wondered what had happened here over the past month. I had to smile at the image of myself as I sat at the computers. I had no idea then of what story the camera would reveal to me that day.

April 24, 2017

Tick Season Has Begun

Getting outdoors is something many in New England look forward to in those first beautiful days of spring. We enjoy the long awaited sunshine and warmer temperatures that we missed through the winter. However, spring also brings the dreaded tick season. When spending time outdoors during the warmer months there are several precautions you can take to avoid tick bites and safely enjoy your time outdoors.
  • Stay on trails outdoors; avoid areas of overgrown brush and tall grasses. (The Live Animal Exhibit trail at the Science Center is wide, so it makes it easy to avoid brushy and grassy areas. You are not at increased risk for tick exposure walking on our trails compared to any other natural area.) 
  • Wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be easily seen. 
  • Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, closed toe shoes with socks, and a hat. Tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants. 
  • Check yourself, your children, and your pets often for ticks, shower after returning indoors.
  • Use insect repellent containing DEET or permethrin (always follow directions). 
  • After returning indoors, run clothes in the dryer on high heat to kill any ticks that may be on the clothing.
American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
Wikimedia/ Jerry Kirkhart
The Science Center sees a surge in the wood tick (also known as the American dog tick) population in spring, causing some concern among students, parents, and teachers. The good news is that by remaining on marked trails you run little risk of encountering ticks. Ticks cannot (and do not) jump off branches and shrubs. They instead cling to tall plants and wait for some creature to brush them off when walking by. Therefore, only students enrolled in off-trail programs are likely to find ticks. More good news!! Deer ticks (which are Lyme Disease carriers and are sometimes called black-legged ticks) are not typically found at the Science Center. If a careful body check is done within 24 hours of being outdoors and all ticks are removed, there is little cause for concern.

Black-legged tick (deer tick) - Ixodes scapularis
Are wood ticks (American dog ticks) dangerous? The American Dog Tick has been known to
carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia. To transmit the disease to you, the tick has
to be biting you for over two hours. If you do a thorough body check when you get home there
is no need to worry.

How do I know if it is a wood tick or a deer tick? Not all ticks carry Lyme Disease. Deer ticks
are known to carry Lyme Disease but wood ticks are not. Wood ticks are quite a bit bigger than
deer ticks. Deer ticks are usually only the size of a head of a pin, while the wood tick can get to
the size of a small raisin when engorged with blood. If you are in doubt of what species of tick
you see, ask one of our naturalists!

Here are a few more helpful links:
Biology and Management of Ticks in New Hampshire - UNH Cooperative Extension
Tick Tips - UNH Cooperative Extension
Insect Repellents - UNH Cooperative Extension
https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/on_people.html https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/cdcs/lyme/documents/tickbites.pdf 

We're looking forward to seeing you on the trail this season!

April 10, 2017

Stories to Tell - Hello Kitty

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

We’ve had a few sightings of a new visitor to the Science Center’s property over the past several months. A stealthy, elusive bobcat has been around but we were unaware of it. The first sighting that came from our trail cameras was last fall when a series of three photos were taken. It was late at night and the bobcat was walking through the brush, resulting in a blurry, black and white image, but it was definitely a bobcat!

This was exciting, since it was the first recorded image of the feline since we put up the cameras in January 2016. The second photo capture occurred in early December. The images were still blurry but they were in color! The animal had been out late in the afternoon in the same brushy ecotone area where it had been spotted earlier that fall. Once again, it was an exciting discovery but one that seemed unlikely to repeat itself. Then this past January, the cameras recorded a third sighting of a bobcat deep in the woods on our property.

The animal looked to be the same size as the animals in the previous photos, but there were no easily identifiable markings on its body to match it with the previous sightings. Again the sighting was during the day, late in the afternoon. Bobcats, it seems, are most active about three hours before sunset until about midnight and then just before dawn until three hours after sunrise. This fit the pattern of the animals in the photos. The animal was definitely on the move. I assume it was in search of prey. Our most recent camera record is from a March evening but from a different forest location. It seems our property may be part of a resident bobcat’s territory, which can range from 1 to 12 square miles. The size of the territory depends on food availability, the season, and if the animal is male or female. Male bobcats tend to have larger territories than females.

Our property and the surrounding area provide habitat a bobcat uses with brushy areas, old fields, forests, rocky areas, and wetlands. It will be interesting to see if the animal(s) continue to visit during spring and summer or only show up in the colder months. We will have to wait and see.

April 3, 2017

The lesser known New Hampshire heralds of spring

By Eric D'Aleo

April proclaims the beginning of spring on the calendar but is not always evident here in New Hampshire. Although southern New England may have green shoots poking through the soil and the hint of warm temperatures, further north there may still be snow on the ground and ice on ponds and lakes. However, there are still signs of spring. One I look for is the return of two small diving ducks: the hooded merganser and the common goldeneye.

The hooded merganser is a small but striking duck. Males have high contrast markings of black and white on their head, back, and chest, a brown scalloping pattern along its sides, a bright golden eye, and a slender black bill. Females are more subdued in their coloration, consisting mainly of browns and tans, with a red eye, and yellow bill similar in appearance to the male’s bill. Both males and females have a high crest on their head that looks like a Mohawk and can be raised and lowered at will. This species of duck prefers to feed in ponds and quiet waters of lakes and rivers. Once the ice opens up to reveal the water the mergansers return shortly afterwards. I have spotted them on the Squam River in Ashland during winter thaws only to disappear when it gets cold again and the ice reforms. Yet by March and April, the temperatures are warm enough to keep a permanent channel of water open, although the shoreline may still have ice. Then hooded mergansers are seen in pairs or small flocks as the males begin courting the females with their white, sail-like crests raised. Occasionally a male will make a low, gravely, groaning call advertising his fitness and interest in breeding. These small ducks also often dive beneath the surface in search for crayfish, aquatic insects, tadpoles, snails, and other mollusks on the river bottom.

Common Goldeneyes may also be seen briefly at this time as they pause on their spring migration north. The male has a black head with a white cheek spot next to its bill and a black back and tail. The chest and sides of the bird are white, while the female has a brown head with a gray body and wings. Both sexes have a bright yellow eye. These birds spend the winter along the New Hampshire coast and on large inland lakes or rivers where the water remains open. The goldeneye, like the hooded merganser, is a diving duck, using its back feet to propel it underwater. The diet of the goldeneye is similar to the hooded merganser, consisting of crayfish, mollusks, aquatic insects, and fish eggs on aquatic vegetation. Both species are very wary and best observed from a distance with binoculars.

March 27, 2017

Press Release: Squam Lakes Natural Science Center Celebrates Selection as Hannaford Cause Bag Program Beneficiary

Holderness, NH – Squam Lakes Natural Science Center has been selected as a beneficiary of the Hannaford Cause Bag program at the Meredith Hannaford during the month of April.

This exciting program has been designed to support local nonprofits like the Science Center. For every Hannaford Helps reusable bag with the good karma message purchased at the Hannaford located at Route 25 in Meredith, Squam Lakes Natural Science Center will receive a $1 donation in order to help fulfill its mission to advance understanding of ecology by exploring New Hampshire’s natural world.

“We are very excited to be chosen for the Hannaford Cause Bag program,” said Amanda Gillen, Marketing Manager at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. “It’s a great way for people to do something small to help support the mission of the Science Center.”

Learn more about Squam Lakes Natural Science Center at nhnature.org. For more information on the Hannaford Cause Bag program, visit www.hannaford.bags4mycause.com or www.facebook.com/hhbagprogram.

About Squam Lakes Natural Science Center The mission of Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is to advance understanding of ecology by exploring New Hampshire's natural world. Through spectacular live animal exhibits, natural science education programs, an informal public garden, and lake cruises, the Science Center has educated and enlightened visitors since 1966 about the importance of our natural world. Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is located on Route 113 in Holderness, an easy drive from exit 24 off I-93, and is open daily from May 1 through November 1. The Science Center is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and is the only AZA-accredited institution in all of northern New England. For further information about the Science Center, call 603-968-7194 or visit www.nhnature.org.

March 23, 2017

Stories to Tell – Nature’s Scavengers

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

One thing is certain; nothing ever goes to waste in nature. This seems especially true in the winter when food is scarce. Something that was once passed over by an animal when food was abundant may now be an important source of nutrition even if it is carrion. However, some wildlife never turns away from this free meal. These animals we call scavengers. When we think of scavengers several species may come to mind -- turkey vultures, carrion beetles, and fly larvae to name a few. However, many predatory animals may scavenge for food at some time during the year, particularly in winter. Here in New Hampshire scavengers may include fox, skunk, raccoon, opossum, bobcat, coyote, and eagles. Two additional birds often seen scavenging on Science Center property in the winter are ravens and crows. Both of these opportunists feed on a variety of food during the summer including fruit, grain, small invertebrates, bird eggs, nestlings, mice, and carrion. But during winter their diet is more limited and they scavenge more often.

Both ravens and crows have been seen scavenging through the Science Center's compost pile searching for food. They seem to prefer to visit the area at different times with the ravens most often seen earlier in the morning than the crows. When looking at images from the same location of the two birds it’s easier to see the difference in their physical appearance.

The raven is clearly larger than the crow and has a thicker, sturdier bill. The crow’s bill is more slender, which makes it more challenging for it to feed on carrion since it’s harder for it to puncture the skin of a dead animal, squirrel sized or larger. The raven’s bill, being larger and heavier, is better able to handle the force needed to feed on an animal carcass.

The raven has a shaggy ruff of feathers sometimes visible around its throat and on its legs that the crow does not have. This gives ravens a rougher and stockier appearance. There is also a difference between their tail feathers. A crow’s tail feathers are all the same length so that when they are spread it appears fan-shaped. A raven’s tail feathers are longer in the center of the tail than on the edges, giving its tail a wedge shape when the feathers are spread.
Both species are social, but ravens are most often seen in pairs while crows are more likely to be seen in family groups.
Look at the two images below and see if you can identify which bird is the crow and which one is the raven. Keep an eye out for these intelligent birds during the rest of the winter to observe their scavenging strategy for survival firsthand.

February 24, 2017

Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteering at the Science Center is enriching and fun. Learn something new and meet interesting people while sharing your talents and skills. Come explore with us and share your enthusiasm. We have a number of upcoming volunteer training opportunities. Learn more and see below for dates. For more information please contact Carol Raymond, Volunteer Manager, at 603-968-7194 x 22.

National Association of Interpreters Certified Interpretive Guide Training: April 6 through 9 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily
Interpreters are storytellers. They are tour guides, museum docents, zoo docents, park rangers, naturalists, and more. In this four-day course offered by the Science Center and National Association for Interpretation you will learn techniques to make connections with an audience, give meaningful and enjoyable presentations, and create thought provoking and relevant interpretive programs. Become a Certified Interpretive Guide through the National Association for Interpretation. Visit interpnet.com to register or contact Certified Interpretive Trainer Audrey Eisenhauer for more information.

Lake Education Assistant Training and Refresher: April 20 from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Lake Education Assistants assist naturalists by leading lake testing activities aboard pontoon boats. Lake Education Assistants are at least 18 years old, enjoy boating in various types of weather, and leading educational activities. No prior experience is necessary. Lake Education Assistants are most active in May and June, and less so in July, August, September and October.

School Group Greeter Training and Refresher: April 25 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m.
School Group Greeters are the first “face” school children see when arriving at the Science Center. Greeters board buses as they arrive, welcoming students, and helping them get started on their Science Center adventure. Greeters like to share a positive, welcoming demeanor, and their sense of organization. They are most active weekdays in May, June, September, and October. No prior experience is necessary.

Volunteer Instructor Training: April 27 from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. 
Volunteer Instructors are trained to lead school groups in several ecology classes that include fun activities on site. The training on April 27 is an introduction to the classes. Trainees continue their instruction through observation and team teaching experiences before scheduling time to lead classes on their own. Volunteer Instructors are at least 18 years old and enjoy sharing knowledge and activities with school-aged children. No prior experience is required. Volunteer Instructors are most active weekdays in May and June, and less so in September and October. The training session is also open to previously trained Volunteer Instructors who would like attend as a refresher.

Water Matters Pavilion Host Training: May 1 from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. 
Hosts are trained to introduce visitors to the exhibits in the Water Matters Pavilion. One exhibit – the Watershed Table – may be opened to visitors to shape and create digital “watersheds” in sand. Other exhibits include live animal displays, animal video cameras, and other interactive activities. Water Matter Pavilion Hosts match their schedules with available time slots. No prior experience is necessary.

Docent Training (for adults): June 19, 21, 21, 22 - 3:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Docents are volunteers trained to interact with guests on the live animal exhibit trail using educational props and live animals. Docents represent the Science Center at off-site events and also travel to assist naturalists with educational outreach programs. Docents must commit to 40 hours of training in their first year and 16 hours annually subsequently.
Cost: $50 (financial aid available) 

First Guides Training (for ages 14 to 17): June 28, 29, 30 - 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
First Guides is a teen volunteer program based on our adult docent program. Teens learn how to be a welcoming and informative presence for visitors, often demonstrating animal artifacts alongside adult docent mentors with live animals.
Cost: $50 (financial aid available)