Francie Von Mertens

Contributor, Something Wild

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri October 3, 2014

Something Wild: Azure Crescendo

Kelly Colgan Azar via flickr Creative Commons

Generations ago, when people lived closer to the natural world, more outdoors than in, mild October days were called "bluebird weather."

The eastern bluebirds' gentle, quizzical notes were familiar and their distinctive habits recognized. A bluebird family remains together this time of year when most other bird species disperse. They favor field or open habitat, and typically perch on branches at field edge when they feed.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri September 12, 2014

Something Wild: Goldfinches, The Late Nesters

American Goldfinch
Credit jjjj56cp via flickr Creative Commons

The bird world quiets down by late summer - but not the American goldfinch, one of the most common backyard birds. September brings the chatter of young goldfinches as they follow their male parent. They beg noisily, perched with head thrown back and trembling wings.

Most songbirds switch their diet to high-protein insects when feeding their young, and they nest earlier when insects are most bountiful. For example, chickadees that keep bird-feeders busy in winter disappear in summer as they forage for insects not birdseed.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri August 29, 2014

Something Wild: Dragonflies Winging South

casch52 via flickr Creative Commons

Late summer brings cool nights and clear air - and winged migration. Along with birds heading south, there's a few butterfly, moth and dragonfly species that respond to the migratory urge.

One dragonfly - the common green darner - has been studied with results that suggest there's a lot of similarities between insect and bird migration. Tiny radio transmitters were attached with eyelash adhesive to green darners which were tracked by plane and ground crews.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri August 8, 2014

As Fresh Fruit Ripens, Fruit Flies Multiply

This image shows a 0.1 x 0.03 inch (2.5 x 0.8 mm) small Drosophila melanogaster fly.
André Karwath via flickr Creative Commons

Summertime ushers in a bevy of fresh fruit enjoy and in no time, a bevy of fruit flies. With a keen sense of smell, fruit flies hone in on a juicy cantaloupe or overripe bananas tossed on the compost pile. Although they're a pest in the kitchen, fruit flies have been a focus of research for over 100 years, and today there are hundreds of labs dedicated exclusively to studying them.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri July 25, 2014

What Are Japanese Beetles Good For?

Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica)
Kurt Andreas via flickr Creative Commons

Mid-summer brings Japanese beetles to the garden, clustering on their favorite foods: the leaves of raspberry, grape, and garden roses. In the vegetable garden, the lead shoots of pole beans are another tasty target. I know gardeners who find a daily ritual of flicking beetles into a container with water and a drop of liquid soap to be very therapeutic. Beetle demise is quick. These are people who typically release indoor spiders and wasps to the outdoors, but damage to the garden is another matter. 

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Something Wild
9:00 am
Fri July 11, 2014

A Salute To Bobolinks & Henry David Thoreau

Male bobolink
Kelly Colgan Azar via flickr Creative Commons

A tumbling jumble of bird song from across the field announces the presence of bobolinks. In his journals, Henry David Thoreau quoted a Cape Cod child who asked:

"What makes he sing so sweet, Mother? Do he eat flowers?"

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri March 21, 2014

Vernal Equinox Means Equal Night

Sunset over Mt. Major.
Credit Abigail via flickr Creative Commons

The Vernal Equinox has arrived! For one brief moment, everywhere on planet Earth, day and night are equal: 12 hours from sunrise to sunset and sunset to sunrise.

The length of daylight compared to dark, is known as photoperiod. Seasonal changes in photoperiod  trigger a lot of changes in plants and animals. Many plants are known as short-day species; they flower after the summer solstice when days are getting shorter. Plants that bloom in spring are known as long-day species.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri March 7, 2014

The Common Junco And Its Uncommon History

foxtail_1 via flickr Creative Commons

A huge question in evolutionary biology is the very basic one: How do species form? It turns out that the Dark-eyed Junco, one of the most common birds at winter feeders, is providing a  clear picture of that process.

First, a quick review of what defines a species:

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri February 21, 2014

The Truth About Coy-Dogs

Credit Jeff Wallace via flickr Creative Commons

It's the height of eastern coyote courtship, and a pair can really yip it up. Coyote sightings, as well as the sounds of coyotes often sparks talk of coy-dogs. Is there such a thing?

Yes. And no.

Yes, domestic dog and coyote hybrids are biologically possible and have occurred; but no genetic sampling of coyotes has found evidence of domestic dog. Coy-dogs don't survive, and here's why.

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Something Wild
12:07 am
Fri February 7, 2014

Creatures In The Night

Credit Douglas Brown via flickr Creative Commons

Wildlife tracks in the snow indicate of a lot of coming and going in the nighttime world. Why are so many animals active, given their limited ability to see in the dark?

There's the obvious reason: division of resources helps avoid competition. A red-tailed hawk hunts the same fields by day that a great horned owl hunts by night. Night also offers some animals protection from their main predators. Mice lie low by day, but in the wild—and in my house—they come out at night.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri January 24, 2014

A Snowy Invasion

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) as seen along the Boundary Bay Dyke Trail.
Tom Magliery via flickr Creative Commons

This year is being referred to as an "invasion year" for snowy owls, and it might be one for the record books.  

Most of the snowy owl sightings have been along the coast where a flat, open landscape resembles their native tundra. Reports from New Hampshire birders include sightings of up to nine in a single day. On Nantucket, the annual Christmas Bird Count found 33, far surpassing the previous count record of four.

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Something Wild
12:26 am
Fri January 10, 2014

NH Has Got Stones!

The Madison Boulder in Madison, NH is one of the largest known "glacial erratics" in North America.
Credit davidburn via Flickr/Creative Commons

Winter's transparent landscape offers a great opportunity for boulder appreciation. And New Hampshire has a lot of big ones, deposited by glacier action over 10,000 years ago. As the ice sheet advanced south, at it's glacial pace, it fractured and plucked many large boulders rights off mountain tops. When the glacier eventually receded, it left behind billions of these "glacial boulders." 

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Something Wild
12:46 am
Fri December 27, 2013

State Fern Nominee?

  New Hampshire's a state insect, the ladybug was nominated by persuasive Concord fifth graders; the pumpkin is our state fruit courtesy of some persuasive Harrisville third and fourth graders. I'd like to plant a seed—or perhaps a spore—for nomination of rock polypody as our state fern. Here's the case.

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Something Wild
12:18 am
Fri December 13, 2013

Forest Succession

Kyle Harms, Louisianna State University

"Forest succession" is a pattern of plant regeneration that begins when a plot of land is left to its own devices. The first phase of this succession is bare soil or an abandoned field. And nature, over the span of decades, converts the area through several stages to mature forest – if left undisturbed.

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Something Wild
12:10 am
Fri November 29, 2013

The World Runs on Grass

A common roadside grass, Little Bluestem stabilizes soil against run-off.
Francie Von Mertens

Grass doesn't get a lot of appreciation aside from lawns and hayfields, but grasses play an essential role in ecosystem health. When soil is disturbed by hurricane, fire or logging, grasses take quick advantage of. Dormant seeds awaiting the right conditions sprout and up come the grasses.

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Something Wild
12:54 am
Fri November 15, 2013

Fewer Exotic Birds in NH This Winter

The white-winged crossbill

Fall migration has wrapped up for all but a few bird species. This semi-annual rite of passage typically follows predictable timetables and geographic routes. Exceptions to the rule, "irruptive" species, are northerners that head this way certain winters, driven out of their home territories by food scarcity.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Thu October 31, 2013

Beauty In The November Grays

Credit Creative Common/Flickr Cape Cod Cyclist

Robert Frost ended a short poem on life and nature with the line, "Nothing gold can stay." October has ended after delivering golden fall days that make us regret the indoor tendencies of our lives. Stark November is at the doorstep now. We reacquaint ourselves with ridge-lines visible through bare trees and with stone walls along fields cleared and worked in a time when days were spent more outdoors than in. 

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri October 18, 2013

The Turkey Vulture

Credit Flikr/Creative Commons, K Schneider

October 18 is the Full Hunter's Moon, and heading south now are hunters of a different sort: turkey vultures, scavengers that feed on carrion.

Unlike other birds, this species has a uniquely developed sense of smell that guides them to their next meal. Weak fliers, turkey vultures are skilled at hitching rides on air currents. Rarely flapping, they hold their wings in a V angle and wobble a bit while gliding. Because of their large size, they're often misidentified as eagles, but eagles power along, strong and steady in flight, never tipsy.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri September 20, 2013

Where Have All The Monarchs Gone?

A monarch on its favorite habitat, the milkweed.
Credit Creative Commons/Rachel Ford James

A lot of people are asking this question, concerned at the diminished numbers of this most charismatic butterfly.  Not many schoolchildren this fall will be able to watch caterpillar transform into chrysalis and then glorious adult—metamorphosis in action.

Monarchs are celebrated for their fall migration to Mexico, but the population that spends the wintering there is experiencing a decline. In fact, this past winter it was the lowest on record.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri September 6, 2013

Nature's Obligate Relationships

Monarch Butterfly on a Mexican Milkweed
Wikimedia Commons

It is the height of monarch butterfly season in New Hampshire. Though fewer migrants have returned this year. They're producing the generation that will undertake one of the most impressive migrations: two-thousand miles to overwinter in Mexico.

Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of many different flowers but require very specific plants when laying their eggs. Eggs hatch into caterpillars that feed only on the leaves of particular species.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri August 23, 2013

Howl of the Wild

Credit Wikimedia Commons

During the late summer and fall, coyotes really "yip it up." Despite what you can learn on Youtube, their yips and howls are family communications that have nothing to do with bloodthirsty predators circling for the kill. 
 

The eastern coyote pack is small: an adult pair and their young. The youngsters are venturing out on their own now and adults howl to round them up. When on the prowl for food, silence is the code—which makes sense—but reuniting often inspires prolonged vocal celebrations. 

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri July 26, 2013

The Company Of Cuckoos

The Black-Billed Cuckoo
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Elusive, secretive birds often are the most satisfying to discover, and for me the black-billed cuckoo ranks near the top. Hearing a bird is usually the best way to find it, but attentive ears are needed to detect this cuckoo's song: a subtle, slow and hollow-sounding "cucucu – cucucucu." The song in no way resembles the bold double notes of a cuckoo clock that mimic the song of the common cuckoo, a species that nests across Europe and Asia.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri July 12, 2013

Fireflies-- Beyond the Magic

Credit Wikimedia Commons

The twinkling fireflies of a summer night bring a little magic. If we think beyond the twinkling, we probably realize it is courtship in progress: the signals of males and females.

There are a couple dozen firefly species in New England, each with a unique series of flashes, from males in flight to females perched below. Beyond the magic, very few people have knowledge of the medical benefits as well: the use of a firefly's light-producing chemicals in bioluminescent imaging.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri June 28, 2013

Marsupial On The Move

Credit Bob Peterson / Wikimedia Commons

New Hampshire is home to the Virginia opossum, our country's one-and-only marsupial.

As a marsupial, an opossum's development takes place ex utero in the mother's pouch instead of in utero, as placental mammals do.

Opossums are a backyard species, but because they are nocturnal, casual sightings are rare. More often, they will be seen as roadkill--an unfortunate consequence of being an urban, slow-moving animal.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri June 14, 2013

Ladies First: Role Reversals Of Spotted Sandpipers

Credit Kenneth Cole Schneider / Flickr/Creative Commons

From shores of wild waterways to not-so-wild urban ponds, a small bird startles up and flies low over the water with quick, stiff wingbeats.
 

It's a spotted sandpiper, a small shorebird often encountered along freshwater shorelines.

Shorebirds come in all sizes, and spotted sandpipers are in the short, stocky category. Despite coloring that blends well with sand and rocks, there's a movement that often gives spotted sandpipers away: they bob up and down as though seized by intense hiccups. When stalking prey, however, their teetering stops.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri May 31, 2013

Small Bird, Big Song

Credit Shanthanu Bhardwaj / Flickr/Creative Commons

As spring moves into summer, birdsong is in full voice. The winter wren, weighing only one third of an ounce, is tiny in stature but boasts an energetic song made up of over 100 individual notes.

Why such a big song from such a small bird? The winter wren makes its home among root tangles and boulders, and unlike birds of open spaces, birds particular to dense, enclosed spaces need a strong song to have it carry far.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri May 17, 2013

Birdsong, Translated

American Robin. Their whistled song is often translated as, "Cheer up. Cheerily. Cheerio."
Ashour Rehana Flickr/Creative Commons

With birds tuning up for the breeding season ahead, here are some memory tricks to help you recognize a few of the more common songs.

Robins can be heard in just about all habitats across the state and the nation. Their whistled song is often translated as, "Cheer-up. Cheerily. Cheerio."

Another song easy to "translate" is the flight song of goldfinches. Someone somewhere interpreted it as, "Potato chip! Potato chip!"    

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri April 19, 2013

If It Sounds Like A Duck...Might Be A Frog

Credit ckaiserca / Flickr/Creative Commons

If you're out for a walk this month, and you hear something that sounds like ducks quacking, don't expect to see ducks. The call of a male wood frog fools a lot of people. The all-male frog chorus is revving up now, and wood frog males are the first to announce their availability to females.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri April 5, 2013

How Many Birds?

Pine Siskins.
Lillian Stokes

How many bird species might an attentive backyard birdwatcher, or "birder", find?

The term "backyard" means any nearby open space, such as a stream corridor or an open field with forest edge. The more habitat types a backyard has, the better.

Don and Lillian Stokes, of Hancock, NH, have a backyard that includes the Contoocook River, a distant ridgeline, open field, wetlands, and forest, not to mention many birdfeeders and birdhouses to attract their feathered friends. Like many active birders, they keep a backyard list of their sightings from over the years.

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Something Wild
12:00 am
Fri March 22, 2013

Unique Nests

Songbird nest found in Great Britain.
nottsexminer Flickr/Creative Commons

A bird can be identified by the different splashes of color on its feathers, or its distinct call, but did you know that you can also tell a bird by the way it builds its nest, even if it's empty?

Just as birds in all their variety evolved from the very first species, their nests have evolved in equal variety over millions of years. Every bird builds a nest unique to its species.

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