September 18, 2017

The soft hues of fall (maple leaf viburnum and hobble bush)

By Eric D'Aleo, Naturalist

Walk through any forest in the northeast in the fall and you are sure to be struck by the brilliance of the colors of the foliage. Many visitors to New Hampshire look forward to mountain ranges robed in various shades of bright colors or search for scarlet-leafed maples along the back roads of small towns. When people walk the trails throughout the state their gaze is often pulled skyward to look at the gold of the aspens and birches, the orange of the oaks, and the red of the maples. However, do not forget to search beneath the brilliant colored canopy for the softer and more subtle hues of the season.

The maple leafed viburnum is a shrub often mistaken for a young red maple tree because its leaves have a similar appearance. A mature plant may reach a height of three to six feet and is often found in the shade of upland forests consisting mainly of beech and maple. In the fall this shrub’s foliage comes in various pastel shades of pale yellow, light pink or a deeper rose color. Often these colors are on several leaves of the same plant or all on the same leaf. The fruit turns a dark blue and is eaten by turkeys, robins, cedar waxwings, flickers, bluebirds, cardinals, flycatchers, thrashers, thrushes, and woodpeckers. In the spring and summer the leaves are a larval food source for the spring azure butterfly and the flowers are a nectar source for the golden-banded skipper.
Maple leaf viburnum
flickr/Katja Shultz
Another understory shrub often overlooked until it “trips” you is hobble bush. Also known as witches hobble the plant is found in rich, moist, wooded areas. The shrub can grow to a height of six to twelve feet and has the ability to root when a branch bends down and touches the ground. This creates dense thickets of plants that make traveling through them difficult. Tripping hazard aside, the shrub’s leaves turn a burgundy to dark plum color in the fall. If the central portion of the leaf still remains green it reminds me of a sliced kiwi whose colors are reversed. The berries also ripen in the fall, changing color from red to dark blue and may be eaten by ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, brown thrashers, squirrels, and chipmunks. So don’t overlook these lesser known fall color artists, look for their softer hues hidden in the forest and you will be rewarded.
Hobble bush
flickr/US Fish & Wildlife Service

August 14, 2017


Martes pennanti 
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Mistelidae
Genus: Martes
Species: M. pennanti

Fast Facts:
Lifespan: 3-4 years in the wild
Size: 31-47 inches in length, weight 4.5-12 pounds
Offspring: 1-4 young
Status: Populations have recovered from extreme lows in early to mid-1900

What do fishers look like and what animals are their relatives? Dark brown to black in color with a silver tinge to the head and shoulders, fishers are medium-sized mammals similar in size to a fox. Fur tends to be softer and darker in females. Short legs bring them close the ground and they bound with hind paws landing in the place of the front paws, leaving sets of two foot prints side by side. Male fishers average about 10 to 12 pounds but definite sexual dimorphism is evident, with females being a little over half the weight of males. Fishers are members of the family Mustelidae, with relatives being weasels, martin, mink and otters.

What kind of habitat do fishers favor? Fishers prefer continuous forest with a thick canopy, translating in the northeast to dense lowland coniferous forests or a mixed forest of conifers and hardwoods. In distribution, fishers are found in southern Canada, New England, New York state and several other northern states. Home range varies from a little over two to 15 square miles depending on the quality of the habitat.

What do fishers eat? Fisher prey upon snowshoe hare, squirrels, mice, and birds, but perhaps their most intriguing catch is the porcupine. Although not immune to porcupine quills, the fisher has a hunting technique that results in it getting few quills. Using agility to its advantage, the fisher circles the porcupine, looking for opportunities to bite at its unprotected face, while staying away from its powerful tail. Even if the porcupine tries to climb a tree, the arboreal fisher can climb above it and threaten it back to the ground. After about one-half hour, the porcupine may be weakened enough for the fisher to flip it over and attack the ventral side, which has no quills. Porcupine quills rarely cause infection in fishers and accidentally ingested quills often end up in fisher scat! Fishers will also eat carrion. It is unusual for a healthy adult fisher to become prey itself.

Fun Facts! 

  • Do fishers eat fish? Although they will readily eat fish, individuals rarely, if ever catch them. In his comprehensive reference book, The Fisher, Roger A. Powell concludes that the best source of the name was early settlers who noted the similarities between the fisher and the European polecat. Other names for the polecat were fitch ferrets, fitchet, fitche and fitchew – not a big leap to the name “fisher.” 
  • In New England we commonly hear this animal being called a “fisher cat”, a confusing label since fishers are not in the cat family. 
  • Active day or night, fishers are more nocturnal in proximity to people. 
  • What about those screams in the night? Those loud calls are probably porcupines or perhaps owls or foxes rather than fishers. 
  • Now, what about fishers being responsible for the disappearance of domestic cats? Fishers can prey upon cats, but Great Horned Owls, coyotes and cars take a more significant toll. Keeping cats in at night is a good solution.

July 31, 2017

2017 Breeding Bird Census Results

Since 1977, Senior Naturalist Dave Erler has conducted a census in early June of bird species that nest on the Science Center campus. The census is done primarily by ear, listening for territorial songs of male birds, indicating probable nesting. The census gives us a snapshot of the bird population by doing the review on approximately the same date each year. This year we held the census on June 10.

The zones referred to below roughly correspond to: Zone 1 – 30 acres that make up the primary use areas (buildings, exhibits, fields etc.); Zone 2 - +/- 100 acres of forests partly logged for forest management in 2016; Zone 3 - +/- 100 acres of other managed forest area.

We saw a total of 46 individual species and 113 individual birds. See the full details of species and location.

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 

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.