Naturespeak

July 9, 2014

A Beaverless Beaver Romp

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 1:06 pm
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Although I should have learned my lesson last year, I decided on an early morning visit to the Beaver Lodge at Conner’s Creek. The lodge is on the property of the Edison Boat Club and sits along the bank of the old canal that once serviced the power plant and feeds into the Detroit River. I’ve been to the place many times over the past few years to check up on my old castoral friends.
Beavers are nocturnal, and these urban beavers are especially so during the summer. They are often daytime active during the fall and this has proven the best – and so far, only – time to observe them under the light of the sun. My recent effort was to see if the pair had any new young and to see these little guys when they were still small. I thought it worth the time to come right at sun rise before they, or as they, retreated to the daytime comfort of their lodge. It didn’t work last year, and it didn’t work this year. It won’t work next year either, but I’ll probably try it again anyway. My effort did not go totally unrewarded, however.
Here, surrounded by the sounds of sirens, brick buildings, power lines, and the abandoned fields of an old cityscape, wildlife abounds. Sitting rock still on a bright morning (moving occasionally only to sip on my coffee) I was relatively undetectable by wild passersby.

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A Black-crowned Night Heron stopped in for some fishing (see above). Perching on a grapevine wrapped cable, this individual was topping off his night with a regular visit to one of his old haunts before roosting for the day. The appearance of a lanky Green Heron (see below), landing uncomfortably on one of the power lines, signaled the heron dayshift. This bird opted to forgo the canal and continued north – probably to the small city park located on the Detroit River.

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Barn and Tree Swallows flittered past, along with the ever-present and ever-noisy Red-winged Blackbirds. The semi-submerged telephone pole, which forms the roof of the beaver lodge at its dry end, served as a sun porch for several large map turtles. These ponderous reptiles slowly made their way up onto the log one by one. At one point two of them sat face to face as perfect mirror images of each other before a third broke up the symmetry with an off-center entrance.

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All of this was entertaining, but from my point of view, however, the most interesting visitors of the day crawled up on the bank literally at my feet. Starting with one very cautious little muskrat making its way into the white clover patch to my right, a total of five of the little beasts ended up munching on the greenery. The grass was a bit shaggy and it was tall enough to nearly cover their tiny dark outlines as they grazed.

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The litter issued from the beaver lodge and represented the latest offspring of a family of muskrats that has been sharing the beaver abode for quite a few years. The two creatures are famous for such cohabitation.

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The muskrats in this herd were quite young – probably about a month old based on their size and general stupidity. They “spotted” and smelled me several times. True to their rodent nature, they would sit upright in order to assess the large coffee-reeking form looming over them. Eyesight is not one of their better attributes but still they attempted to fix their beady eyes on their mystery observer. A few even bolted for the cover of the grapevines after perceiving danger, but still they returned. I guess the power of fresh cloverleaf overcomes fear. This food over flight response is why most little muskrats never make it to adult ‘rathood, by the way. Adult muskrats have the sense to disappear after they sense danger. All they have to do is survive one close call in this whack-a-muskrat world in order to get enough predator-sense to continue.

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At this stage of life, muskrats lack their full covering of shiny guard hairs. Instead they appear to be clothed in fuzzy pajamas. They are near-prefect miniatures of the adults, but their rounded heads betray their close ancestry to Meadow Voles (aka Meadow Mice). They are, in fact, also close cousins to the beaver themselves. So, in a way I was able to have a near-beaver experience on this trip. You have to admit, they are cute by any standard – even if they represented a second choice to this beaver watcher.

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July 1, 2014

Walking Thorns

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 3:06 pm
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When the small Redbud tree/bush in my backyard sprouted thorns, I was delighted. Redbuds, known for their lavender spring flowers and symmetrical heart-shaped leaves, are not known for their thorns at all. In fact, these plants never possess real thorns – their branches and leaves are as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Some individuals do support mobile thorns from time to time and my pitiful little example tree was just such an individual. This, of course, I should explain.
The “mobile thorns” in question are insects called treehoppers. Specifically they are called Two-marked Tree Hoppers. One look at the adult coloration should provide enough explanation for the name (they have not one, not four, but exactly two yellow spots on backs). These critters, if not having a Masters degree in camouflage do have a two year Associates in the Arts. They avoid predator detection by pretending to be thorns instead of the succulent little juice boxes that they are. This deception would probably be more effective without the two-spot decor calling out for attention, but I suspect this was due to some ancient tree-hopper union specification and that I should not judge. Their ploy is good enough to work most of the time whereas I can’t always say that about my attempt to be a normal human being.

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This species has a tall flat projection coming off of their thorax that performs the role of a “picker”. The outline of the head and wing covers, neatly tapers along the lines of the base of this pseudo thoracic thorn. The legs, all six of ‘em, can be tucked out of sight so that the edge of the body armor can merge seamlessly with the branch.
Behavior has a big part in pulling this fakery off. Thorns don’t move. Even though these tree hoppers can walk and fly, they chose not to do much of either. Instead they perch motionless on the plant stems most of the time just like the real thing they are trying to imitate. They orient themselves on the steams so that the points are directed downward, or inward, and when perching in group they all orient in the same manner (lo to the little fake thorn that chooses to point the other way).
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This inanimate act, like the camouflage itself, is not perfect. When approached, or touched, Two-marked Tree Hoppers will shimmy to the opposite side of the twig and will continue to do so until a.) the threat is gone or b.) they are eaten by a predator who has at least an Associates degree in camouflage detection (or fake thorn detection) or c). they attempt to fly away and are eaten by a predator with only a 3rd grade education.
Those females who survive, and are lucky enough to mate with a male thorn, lay their eggs just under the surface of the twig using a saw-like ovipositor (egg laying tube) to insert her cargo. The nymphs, looking like the cicada relatives that they are, emerge and seek out the tender leaf stems where they insert their needle-like mouths and drink of the plant’s sap. It takes about a month to achieve adulthood, so these non-thorny young’uns seek the underside of the leaf for protection. They have a small nubbin of a fake thorn but this is not enough to be considered a thorn except by the dumbest of predators. A few were tended by ants which were milking them for the honeydew secretions (see below).

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It is interesting to note that the nymphs line up just like their adult counterparts, even though it is for a different reason. The nymphs line up along the mid-rib of the leaf like Kindergartners queuing up for lunch (except that they don’t argue amongst themselves as to who is the line leader or the caboose or who took cuts or…)
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When the magic day comes, and the nymph is ready for adulthood, they shed their final skin and walk out into the world with a glorious fake thorn. At first they are pinkish white but this soon darkens into the purplish black of maturity.

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You’d think that all this plant sucking would harm the host Redbud (they also feed on Black Walnut, Shagbark Hickory, Willow, and numerous other trees) but most trees are man enough to take it. My little Redbud is taking its cargo of thorns like the little man it is. Well, actually it is not a little man but because the thorns on it are not real either, we can pretend.

June 23, 2014

Pecking Order

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 2:07 pm
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I have often referred to my Dollar Lake property as the “Kingdom of the Woodpeckers” because of the incredible variety and number of these birds which frequent the place. I’d call it Peckerwood if the dictums of society allowed. Over the course of an average spring/summer weekend seven different species have been known to visit the yard. With the exception of the northern ranging Black-backed Woody, this represents the full complement of woodpeckers to be found in the state.
While I’ll admit that this is not a fact worthy of spraying a freshly gulped cup of coffee upon its revelation, I do think it worthy of minor mention in a minor blog such as this. Having established that I have been in the position of being a woodpecker connoisseur as of late, I will go on to say that there are layers of hammerhead appreciation. Yes, it is stupid to rank things but I have been known for saying stupid things and I must maintain my reputation.
My woodpecker ranking has nothing to do with inherent worthiness –it is, like wine, beer, and movie rankings, extremely subjective. Such lists often result in folks calling each other peckerwood due their obvious Neanderthal abilities in distinguishing the “crème de la crème” from the crap. I humbly believe you’ll agree on my top choices regardless of your relatively density.

Flicker photo IMG_4350_zps07618346.jpg  Red-bellied Woodpecker photo IMG_4803_zpsd0175907.jpg  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photo IMG_4595_zpsdb68abc9.jpg

The familiar and delightful little Downy Woodpecker is at the bottom of the list only because it is familiar, little, and not uppy. Flickers (see top photo above) come in second because they are familiar and because they are flickers. Red-bellied Woodpeckers (see middle photo above) are next on the list followed closely by, and often interchanging positions with, Hairy Woodpeckers. Neither is well-named but that is not their fault. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (see bottom photo above), in position 5, are a personal favorite because of their name alone. For sheer wow-ness, Red-headed Woodpeckers are second from the top as the best-named of all birds. None, however, can exceed the magnificent Pileated Woodpecker for overall wow-ness.
For considering the top two woodpeckers on my list, this season has been a good one.

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Either Red-heads are abundant or one individual bird is abundantly energetic because they (he) are (is) always around. Red-headed Woodpeckers are painted with broad strokes – their head is solidly red, their body white, and their wings starkly black and white. There is no barring or fancy pin-striping on this bird. When stationary upon the side of a tree they look rather fake.

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Red-heads are noticeable for their coloration alone, but their behavior also gives them away. They tend to veer from the normal woodpecker habit of tree banging for insects in that they also engage in aerial pursuits for their prey – acting much like a flycatcher. One bird flew back and forth low over the dock apparently trying to scare up a dragonfly or two. If these birds are ever embarrassed by such non-conformist behavior it never shows (because they already have red cheeks and…never mind).

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Pileated Woodpeckers are in a league of their own primarily due to their size and ghostly tendencies. It’d seem that the two don’t go together, but one never knows when one of these giants will swoop into, or out of, view. It is easy enough to tell when Pileated Woodpeckers are in the neighborhood because of their distinctive tree-work. Excavating large square-edged pits, they can turn a tree into a good imitation of a towering skyscraper complete with multiple windows. They are not intimidated by the hard outer wood of a healthy tree in their pursuit of Carpenter Ants and wood-boring grubs deep within.

Pileated Woodpecekr - Male photo IMG_4972_zps56c380ca.jpg   Pileated Woodpecker - Male photo IMG_4981_zpsc49196e8.jpg

In my experience these birds will suddenly appear from nowhere. Occasionally they announce their presence with a horsey laugh (sounding very much like a Flicker call played on slow speed in front of a loud speaker) or you’ll hear some resonate hammering (sounding very much like a carpenter whacking away on sill beam), but for the most part they just drift in and do their stuff. Much of their time is spent on fallen trees and stumps.
Crow-sized, Pileated are about 15 inches in length and marked with the usual black and white attire of all woodpeckers. Males and females look alike except that the males have a red mustache and the females a black one (no comment on females with mustaches, now). The first photo in this series is that of a female while the rest are males. The species name refers to the prominent red crest found on both sexes – from the Latin pileatus or “wearing a felt cap.” You might be relieved (or is it re-leave-e-ated)? to know that this name can be correctly pronounced as either “pill-le-ated” or “pie-le-ated.” French-Canadians simply call them “Grand Pic” and avoid the pronunciation trouble altogether.

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One of these magnificent woodpeckers came down to investigate our rotting stumps last week. He hopped from stump to stump before settling into spend a few minutes on one good ant-producing prospect. Once spotted, he paused, threw off a penetrating stare, and drifted into the woods. His unhurried manner of leaving suggested that she left of her own accord and not because of my presence. Yes indeed, this bird is top of the pecking order.

June 16, 2014

Because They’re Worth It

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 1:08 pm
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Piping Plovers are one of Michigan’s most endangered birds. They are so rare in the Great Lakes region, in fact, that most of them bear personal names. This is not necessarily a good thing, by the way (you’ll recall that the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth was called Martha and that Sue is a long-extinct -Rex!). Usually by the time people get involved with the fate of a species they are inclined to pin personal names on their subjects and mark them with colorful bands and tags. Therefore, like rock stars, these unfortunate critters are endowed with single names and lots of bling.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, one of the Piping Plovers I encountered at Tawas Point State Park earlier this week was probably named L’oreal. Although, because she wasn’t paired with Lancelot, I could be wrong. You see, it depends on your definition of yellow – I’ll explain this in a minute. The only thing that really matters is that this bird, and her mate, are Piping Plovers and that they are freely running around on the Lake Huron Dunes.
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Pipers are closely related to Killdeers. Like their larger cousins they have a ringed neck, dark forehead stripe, and only three toes. Unlike them, they are sparrow-sized, pale, and exceedingly rare. Against their chosen sandy background these diminutive plovers are nearly invisible. The two birds I encountered opted for high visibility in their effort to lure me away. Their earnest “peep-lo” calls punctuated the morning air and they skittered around the beach grass to catch my attention.

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Their efforts were not necessary in this case because their territory was clearly roped off and designated as Piping Plover habitat. I was outside the perimeter and the threat of federal law was enough to keep me there. Both birds settled down after a short while and one of them, the one I’m calling L’Oreal, snuck back onto her nest. A predator proof wire frame, with spacing just large enough to allow her passage, surrounded the site. Her nest, if you could call it that, was a mere scrape in the sand and is the reason this caged bird sings.

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Looking over my photos after the fact I was able to see the multiple leg bands on each individual. John Audubon could hardly have imagined what his simple thread-tied Phoebes hath wrought. Not only are these birds marked with a standard aluminum identification band, but are also marked with brightly colored location and brood bands. If they had external ears I’m sure these would be tagged as well. This system, along with the wire cage/perimeter system is consistent with Piping Plover programs across the country. In monitored populations, like that at Tawas, the chicks are banded soon after hatching.

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One bird had a high orange tag along with a black & green band on her left leg (see beginning photo and No. 3). The right leg had a high metal band with a pale ankle bracelet. The other bird (see above) had the high orange tag on its right leg along with a black and green band below the bend. The left leg was doubly banded with aluminum and green banding. The first bird matches the band sequence of L’Oreal. The pale ankle band, unfortunately, was a problematical faded yellow so I’ll have to add a caveat to my “expert” opinion. It could be dirty white.

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Let’s just suppose that I am right. This is not always a good thing to do, but let’s use this as an example of one piper’s life even if it is not the pictured fowl. L’Oreal – so called because “she’s worth it” (hats off to the team member that came up with that one!) – has been around for at least three years. For the past two she has nested at Tawas Point with Lancelot and successfully raised multiple chicks each year. She’s even been recorded overwintering in Georgia. That the other Piping Lover of the pair is definitely not Lancelot (who is a “right orange, green, orange and a left metal, yellow”) brings up some interesting possibilities which only his hairdresser knows for sure. Actually the state Piping Plover co-coordinator probably knows.
There are three main Piping Plover breeding locations in North America. The main population is found along the beaches of the Northeast and it appears to be the healthiest. Another group sets up shop in the northern Great Plains.
The Great Lakes population is the smallest by far. From a low of only 17 Michigan pairs in the late 1970’s, this number has slowly climbed over the years and today there are at least three times that number of known breeders. There were 45 chicks produced in 2012 and high hopes for more this season. Eight chicks were fledged at Tawas last year alone. Most of this success can be chalked up to the gallant efforts of conservationists and volunteers watching over them – you know those people who put names and tags on these birds.
Historically Piping Plovers were never common on Michigan’s beaches, or along any of the Great Lakes for that matter. Biologists estimate that only 600-800 pairs nested here in their heyday. Shoreline development certainly is to blame for the bird’s accelerated plunge over the brink within the last 100 years, but there was something else going on long before our arrival on the scene. Nature has a way of putting animals in their place and often we are not privy to that information. That probably means that even with a wildly successful preservation program Piping Plovers will always be rare. At least it is safe to say that they will always be special and all of them are worth the effort.

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June 8, 2014

Quill Pig Passing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:17 pm
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Apart from the increasing clumps of white birch and abandoned snowmobiles, dead roadside porcupines are a sure way to mark one’s passage into Northern Michigan. It is near impossible to travel over the “quill line” without spotting at least one or two lifeless bristle mounds on the way to your final destination. It would be easy to assume that these large rodents are born dead on the side of the road if you are not a resident.
Even though I have spent considerable time in porky country and the critters are extremely common, I’d never seen a live porcupine. The fact that they are primarily nocturnal certainly influenced the situation as well. The animals were burned into my young mind, however, thanks to the tales of a favorite uncle. The Boyer side of the family lived on Sugar Island, located on the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie – literally spitting distance from the far-away land of Canada-da-da-da.
My Uncle Dan went through several dogs over the years and not a one lived a full life that I recall. Whenever one came back quill-ridden, due to a disastrous encounter with a porcupine, it was “taken for a walk.” Uncle, the dog, and a rifle entered the deep woods behind the shed and only uncle and the shotgun returned. So, in a way I learned that porcupines kill dogs with a rifle. I was never there when these things events happened but heard about them several times over each summer’s visit.
Secretly I wondered if I would be taken on a similar walk if I ever got quilled. I dreaded a porcupine encounter and for over half a century never had to deal with it. By the way, I’ve since found out that most quills can be extracted safely without the use of lead, but that is irrelevant at this point.

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A long-feared event finally took place at our Dollar Lake cabin a few weeks ago. A Porky ambled into the yard and I ambled out to encounter it. My uncle having passed away many years ago (and in heaven, no doubt, after a brief time in purgatory), I felt safe. It was a completely serendipitous occasion, but fortunately I was ready.

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The animal, a small one by quill pig standards (they can get up to 30 pounds), was intent on crossing the yard along the lakeside. It was caught off guard by my appearance and indignantly rose up on his hind legs to look at me with a “really?” look. After casting a longing glance over to where he wanted to go, he turned back to look where he’d just come from and apparently made a decision to retreat. Acting in slow motion, he dropped back on all fours, turned his rump in my direction and bloomed. Yes, he bloomed.

Porcupine Preparing for Defense photo PorcupineinDefensePose-ReadytoBoom_zps4e880497.jpg orcupine on Defense photo PorcupineinDefensePose1_zps2283271f.jpg

The transformation of a porcupine at rest to one in defensive mode is a remarkable thing. By tightening the skin on his hind quarters it raised a ring of extremely long hairs to expose a formidable patch of quills hidden beneath. White quills, contrasting with the coal black underfur surrounding them, lined both sides of the tail and created a menacing rump crescent. The porky waited for my next move – knowing full well that if I chose to molest him I would pay a price. His whole demeanor was that of bored confidence (“if we both just go our own way things will be o.k., so how about it?”).

porcupine on Defense photo PorcupineinDefensePose2_zpsc9e8cfda.jpg

According to the literature, the average porcupine has over 10,000 quills. The longest, at about 4 inches, are located on the rump and the shortest are on the sides of the head. There are no quills on the belly at all and this has long been the attack point for predators such as Fishers.
Each quill is a hollow modified hair. The tips are equipped with multiple backward-facing barbs. As my uncle could have told you, once these barbs gain access to dog flesh they will work their way in until…well, lead poisoning results! Like I said before, they can be removed if “deflated” (cut) and firmly pulled. The porky doesn’t throw these quills at their attacker. They are loosely attached to the skin via a narrow base and they detach as soon as the tips come in contact with the enemy.

Porcupine Quill Decorated Box photo PorcupineQuillBasket_zps4064c771.jpg Porcupine Quill Decorated Box - Detail photo PorcupineQuillBasketDetail_zpsd77a4e20.jpg

Native tribes made heavy use of porcupine quills for decorative purposes. Before the advent of European glass beads, these plastic-like hairs were dyed and sewn into fabric or birch bark to create stunning designs. Gathering quills was relatively simple because porkies are slow and easily clubbed (quills are no defense against large sticks).

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After holding his threat pose for a minute, my porky turned back and beat a retreat through the cedars from whence he came. It was not a hasty retreat by any means; in fact I believe an opossum might have a speed edge over a running porky. I will admit that it must be hard to keep your butt skin tight while running and I probably should cut this porky some slack. We’d have to pitch an un-armed porcupine against an opossum sometime to see who would win such a foot race. If that race was across a road, I’d wager both would be creamed before reaching the other side, unfortunately.

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The porcupine sought safety in a maple tree which he scaled with bear-like ability until reaching a high crotch. Finally letting his quills down, he settled down to wait out the threat. Even though I wasn’t present for most of the time, he remained there for over four hours before descending. As a final wager, I’d bet that this porky did not enjoy his encounter nearly as much as I did. In fact I’ll bet he dreads it.

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May 31, 2014

Red Squirrels and Rust

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 3:45 pm
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In nature, things are always changing- beaver ponds to meadows, meadows to forests, Hanna Montana deteriorates into Miley Cyrus etc. Nothing really remains the same. Even sturgeons, those timeless bastions of bottom feeding, change individual form as they grow from fry to formidable fish. They also, like all organisms, go through daily and monthly changes depending on seasonal and courtship needs etc. In short, nature is a dynamic and not a static entity.
Much of the joy of nature watching revolves around observing both long term and seasonal changes. Of these two, however, seasonal changes are the most accessible for the curious naturalist (“phenology” for those of you working on a crossword puzzle). Birders are keen to minute plumage changes and some of them can get in an exhaustive description of a 2nd year Herring Gull before their first sip of Green Tea in the morning. Green Thumbers are all about growing seasons. A Brown Thumber, such as myself, is fully capable of sucking the joy out of a simple seasonal observation by encumbering the reader with extraneous details. It is time for me to do so again.
Let’s take Cedar Apple Rust and Red Squirrels as two examples to illustrate “The Pageant –pageant- pageant Of-of-of Nature-nature-nature” (he says with a booming echo-chamber voice). These two are rarely mentioned in the same sentence but both organisms share a reddish coloration and a period of dramatic change over the past month.
I took a look at the Cedar Apple Rust gall in a previous blog and won’t rehash the topic except to bring us up to snuff. The gall, a hard meteorite-like growth with multiple “eyes”, is found on the branches of Red Cedar trees. It is the alternate stage of a type of apple rust called Cedar Hawthorn Rust which spends one year on the leaves of hawthorn trees and next few years as a gall on Red Cedar. It takes several years for the cedar galls to mature and during this time they remain relatively dormant. I left off with this stage in my previously mentioned blog with a promise that I’d come back when they explode. This spring, true to my word, I returned to witness this wonderfully odd transformation.

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The Spring rains incite these galls to exude long gelatinous “horns” in the manner of a Chia Pet from Hell. These structures, called telial horns, bear millions of tiny two-celled spores which float off into the air to infect Hawthorn Trees. Over the course of the spring season, the galls and their crop of snot horns dry up and re-swell with each passing weather system – releasing a new crop of spores each time.

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Each cedar gall is good for up to 10 releases before being tapped out. Because the cycle plays out again and again every year, you can catch the annual show if you time your visits properly. As in all cycles there are good years and bad years (which gives some hope that Miley Cyrus will outgrow her fungal stage and return to dormancy).
The spring transformation of the Red Squirrel is far less dramatic than the Cedar –Cyrus thing. As mammals these expresso charged little rodents run through an annual molt cycle. They undergo a fall and spring do-over. Again, I have addressed this before but I was so amazed at the sudden visible change in one of my Dollar Lake squirrel that I feel compelled to share it (and, of course, explain it until it is no longer fun).
Red Squirrels undergo a spring and a fall molt. The two occur in opposite directions. The fall molt goes basically from back to front while the spring molt goes front to back. A good way to remember this is to reverse the normal phrasing we use for remembering time changes thus: “Spring back, Fall forward.” Remember this for it will serve you well in later life. This might be one of the qualifying questions asked by St. Peter when you ascend to the pearly gates.
Molting is a gradual process and hard to notice when in progress. It varies between individuals, but most Red Squirrels start spring molt by mid-April and complete it by June. Some individuals have yet to molt (as this backyard Red still in winter coat as of the last week of May). A comparison of the two pictures of my notch-eared friend, taken one month apart, will tell most of the story regarding the Spring molt. The first shot, taken in late April, shows the first stages and the second, snapped in late May, reveals a fully summarized squirrel.

 photo Notch-earedRedSquirrelApril262014_zpsd8bce8ee.jpg   photo Notch-earedRedSquirrelMay232014_zps63870b4d.jpg

You’ll notice in the first shot that the squirrel was still primarily in winter coat with grayish brown sides, a reddish back stripe and tail, ear tufts, and a dirty white belly. There was only a hint of a dark side stripe. A closer look, however, shows that this animal was already in molt. The face and eye ring are already garbed in short hair while a fuzzy top knot of winter hair remains.
By the time I took the second shot, the process was complete. The animal was covered with short reddish hairs with a clear black side stripe bordering a bright white belly. This is a portrait of a summer squirrel.
We missed the intermediate stages of the molt, but I can tell you what happened. The change began on the nose, chin, and feet. The process is so consistent that it began on the front feet and on the inner edge of the hind feet. The sides of the head go before the top and the rest continues along the sides and back until ending at the rump (a natural ending for sure). Somewhere along the way the ears tufts are dropped.
So there you have it. A squirrel and a spore ball can give us a small insight into a massive world of natural change. I guarantee neither subject would have been brought up in polite conversation until now. It is your duty to carry the ball and tell them something that they don’t really want to know.

Red Squirrels and Rust

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:45 pm
 photo RedCedarAppleGallintheSpring3_zpsbfd41384.jpg
In nature, things are always changing- beaver ponds to meadows, meadows to forests, Hanna Montana deteriorates into Miley Cyrus etc. Nothing really remains the same. Even sturgeons, those timeless bastions of bottom feeding, change individual form as they grow from fry to formidable fish. They also, like all organisms, go through daily and monthly changes depending on seasonal and courtship needs etc. In short, nature is a dynamic and not a static entity.
Much of the joy of nature watching revolves around observing both long term and seasonal changes. Of these two, however, seasonal changes are the most accessible for the curious naturalist (“phenology” for those of you working on a crossword puzzle). Birders are keen to minute plumage changes and some of them can get in an exhaustive description of a 2nd year Herring Gull before their first sip of Green Tea in the morning. Green Thumbers are all about growing seasons. A Brown Thumber, such as myself, is fully capable of sucking the joy out of a simple seasonal observation by encumbering the reader with extraneous details. It is time for me to do so again.
Let’s take Cedar Apple Rust and Red Squirrels as two examples to illustrate “The Pageant –pageant- pageant Of-of-of Nature-nature-nature” (he says with a booming echo-chamber voice). These two are rarely mentioned in the same sentence but both organisms share a reddish coloration and a period of dramatic change over the past month.
I took a look at the Cedar Apple Rust gall in a previous blog and won’t rehash the topic except to bring us up to snuff. The gall, a hard meteorite-like growth with multiple “eyes”, is found on the branches of Red Cedar trees. It is the alternate stage of a type of apple rust called Cedar Hawthorn Rust which spends one year on the leaves of hawthorn trees and next few years as a gall on Red Cedar. It takes several years for the cedar galls to mature and during this time they remain relatively dormant. I left off with this stage in my previously mentioned blog with a promise that I’d come back when they explode. This spring, true to my word, I returned to witness this wonderfully odd transformation.

 photo RedCedar-CedarAppleGallinNovember_zps980fe36d.jpg

The Spring rains incite these galls to exude long gelatinous “horns” in the manner of a Chia Pet from Hell. These structures, called telial horns, bear millions of tiny two-celled spores which float off into the air to infect Hawthorn Trees. Over the course of the spring season, the galls and their crop of snot horns dry up and re-swell with each passing weather system – releasing a new crop of spores each time.

 photo Red-CedarAppleGallintheSpring4_zps719666ea.jpg

 photo RedCedarAppleGallintheSpring2_zpsb39640ea.jpg

 photo RedCedarAppleGallintheSpring_zpsc91bb1bf.jpg

Each cedar gall is good for up to 10 releases before being tapped out. Because the cycle plays out again and again every year, you can catch the annual show if you time your visits properly. As in all cycles there are good years and bad years (which gives some hope that Miley Cyrus will outgrow her fungal stage and return to dormancy).
The spring transformation of the Red Squirrel is far less dramatic than the Cedar –Cyrus thing. As mammals these expresso charged little rodents run through an annual molt cycle. They undergo a fall and spring do-over. Again, I have addressed this before but I was so amazed at the sudden visible change in one of my Dollar Lake squirrel that I feel compelled to share it (and, of course, explain it until it is no longer fun).
Red Squirrels undergo a spring and a fall molt. The two occur in opposite directions. The fall molt goes basically from back to front while the spring molt goes front to back. A good way to remember this is to reverse the normal phrasing we use for remembering time changes thus: “Spring back, Fall forward.” Remember this for it will serve you well in later life. This might be one of the qualifying questions asked by St. Peter when you ascend to the pearly gates.
Molting is a gradual process and hard to notice when in progress. It varies between individuals, but most Red Squirrels start spring molt by mid-April and complete it by June. Some individuals have yet to molt (as this backyard Red still in winter coat as of the last week of May). A comparison of the two pictures of my notch-eared friend, taken one month apart, will tell most of the story regarding the Spring molt. The first shot, taken in late April, shows the first stages and the second, snapped in late May, reveals a fully summarized squirrel.

 photo Notch-earedRedSquirrelApril262014_zpsd8bce8ee.jpg

 photo Notch-earedRedSquirrelMay232014_zps63870b4d.jpg

You’ll notice in the first shot that the squirrel was still primarily in winter coat with grayish brown sides, a reddish back stripe and tail, ear tufts, and a dirty white belly. There was only a hint of a dark side stripe. A closer look, however, shows that this animal was already in molt. The face and eye ring are already garbed in short hair while a fuzzy top knot of winter hair remains.
By the time I took the second shot, the process was complete. The animal was covered with short reddish hairs with a clear black side stripe bordering a bright white belly. This is a portrait of a summer squirrel.
We missed the intermediate stages of the molt, but I can tell you what happened. The change began on the nose, chin, and feet. The process is so consistent that it began on the front feet and on the inner edge of the hind feet. The sides of the head go before the top and the rest continues along the sides and back until ending at the rump (a natural ending for sure). Somewhere along the way the ears tufts are dropped.
So there you have it. A squirrel and a spore ball can give us a small insight into a massive world of natural change. I guarantee neither subject would have been brought up in polite conversation until now. It is your duty to carry the ball and tell them something that they don’t really want to know.

May 21, 2014

Shadows of a Fossil Forest

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:59 pm
Field Horsetail at Dawn photo FieldHorstailatDollarLake1_zps80b80b0e.jpg
A miniature forest of pale straws has taken over the near lake portion of my Dollar Lake property. Although rising several inches above the grass they are not obvious except in the low rays of the morning sun. It is appropriate that they are at their visual best in the “Dawn Time” because these plants, called Horsetails, are literally from the Dawn Times of earth history.
Although they may be small now, Horsetails come from a giant past. Perhaps the term “living fossil” is often overused (especially in reference to ancient aunts or family patriarchs) but these plants have been around for at least 300 million years and certainly qualify. In comparison, the dinosaurs are newbies and wannabes – having appeared and flamed out as the horsetails stood by and watched with unblinking stares.

Field Horsetail photo FieldHorsetailatDollarLake2_zps35a2b5dd.jpg

The first members of this group attained tree stature at a time before trees were even a twinkle in evolution’s eye during the Carboniferous Period. These swamp plants shaded the first amphibians and provided perches for giant dragonflies. One early type, called Calamites, grew well over 60 feet in height on hefty trunks nearly two feet in diameter. Fossil imprints, such as the one I am holding in the photo below) record a plant that, except in scale, is identical with its modern descendants.

Calamites Fossil photo CalamitesFossil_zps5d81ce88.jpg

There are many different species of horsetail and all share “horstaily “features such as jointed ribbed stems and spore reproduction (none of this new-fangled flowering stuff). The plants grow via underground rhizomes which send up two different types of stems – fertile and non-fertile. And you thought I was going to say big ones and little ones, didn’t you!
Non-fertile stems are green and most produce whorls of strappy leaves (which just happen to make them look like horsetails, by the way). A detailed look at these stems will reveal rows of white silcates which give it a tough exterior and creates an abrasive quality useful for scouring out pots and pans (thus the common pioneer name of scouring rush).

Horsetail Stems photo HorsetailStemDetail2_zps740390ad.jpg       Horsetail Stem Detail photo HorsetailStemDetail_zps8f7b173d.jpg

Technically, it may be best to call my ancient little plants by their formal name of Equisetum arvense but let’s be civil about it and stick to Field Horsetail. My miniature crop consisted of early spring fertile stems only. These shoots are ghostly pale due to their lack of chlorophyll. Their only function is to produce a spore-bearing cone and then wither away. They rarely last more than a week.
The cones, or strobiles if you prefer-bile, themselves are made up of multiple scales which look like up-side down flowers – complete with petals. Tiny spores are produced by this structure and they drift off with each passing wind gust.

Field Horsetail Cone - Detail photo HorsetailConeDetail1_zps14718b3f.jpg   Field Horsetail Cone - Detail photo 739fd295-2c91-4753-b48a-63805a8ded5f_zpsf0dec69c.jpg

I teased several of my horsetails into releasing spore clouds and counted as many spores as I could. I reached 125 before….well, actually, no I didn’t. That was a shameless lie just to keep your attention long enough to tell you that you can’t see the individual spores with the naked eye. Under the magnification of a high power lens or scanning microscope, however, they take on a very interesting form.
Each spore is tightly wrapped with four elaters or tendrils upon release. Moisture sensitive, they un-furl like springs which aide in the spore’s motion. The enlarged foot pads at the end of each tendril give the whole thing a strangely alien appearance. One thinks of those alien invaders from “War of the Worlds.”
Horsetail Spore photo HorsetailSporewithElaters_zps3bdf881b.jpg
These horsetail spores are, of course, the exact opposite of alien forms because they have been an original part of our planet’s life for a very very – did I say very? – long time. We are alien forms by comparison.

Field Horsetail at Dawn photo FieldHorstailatDollarLake1_zps80b80b0e.jpg

May 15, 2014

A Chipmunk for Baby

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:57 pm

Chipmunk Feast photo IMG_4207_zpsf91f5267.jpg

I did several versions of a Chipmunk for my daughter’s baby shower invitation and it took a while to decide on the final version. She insisted on a woodland theme for the arrival of this child (and when pregnant women insist on something it is smart to comply). This theme will continue into the decor of the baby’s room and might even extend to the child itself. Who knows, he might be raised as a small woodland animal. If she and her husband start calling the baby’s room a “den” or “burrow” then there will be cause for some alarm. As a career naturalist who raised his children in the “woodland ways” I just may be seeing my chickens come home to roost.
At any rate, the issue of the invitation, the cake, and the room decoration for the shower revolves around a nature/woody theme. As invitation master (a self-applied title) it was my duty to come up with an appropriate woody type product upon which the bare realities of “when”, “where”, and “for who” will be draped. It was not as easy as I had hoped.
Apart from the fact this was for a pregnant female – an entity pickier than even the biggest of corporate bosses – it also had to pass my muster. The primary issue was finding the right woodland creature and this demanded some research and inspiration. As you can see, I am not a “clip art” kind of guy.

Curious Dollar Lake Turtle photo IMG_4168_zps0bd1c33c.jpg  Pair of Dollar Lake Ring-neck Ducks photo IMG_4177_zps2aebbc85.jpg
My wife and I opened up our tiny Dollar Lake cabin a few weeks ago. In that cozy woodland setting I figured there would be plenty of inspiration, and there was. Critters paraded by, as if on review, and vied for the cutest title. A curious Painted Turtle bobbed to the surface close to the dock, a beautiful pair of Ring-necked Ducks landed for a visit, and a busy Phoebe darted about for insects. All of these critters, while fascinating, are not really “cute” in the pregnant sort of way. Two of them don’t even fit the woodland theme at all. I could make an appealing little Phoebe character but the grayness of such a bird rules it out. Sorry Phoebe, maybe next time when the shower theme is insect-eating birds.

ollar Lake Pheobe photo IMG_4273_zpsb3505f8d.jpg
I have a love/hate relationship with squirrels and there are plenty running around my home yard to provide ample opportunity for consideration. At Dollar Lake, however, the squirrels came in all shape and manner of being, so they had to be reviewed for their fuzziness factor. The black Gray Squirrel was just plain creepy and the Fox Squirrel just plain too fat. The Red Squirrel put in a very good appearance. I am partial to Reds, as you may know regarding my home yard squirrels, but this one was a stranger to me (and I to him).

Dollar Lake Black Phase Gray Squirrel photo IMG_4239_zps6f739a9d.jpg  Dollar Lake Red Squirrel photo IMG_4234_zps7980f0d8.jpg
Perched in the White Oak over the shed, he displayed unusual patience when approached. A battle scarred veteran with a torn ear, he was appealing none the less. But, it was the resident Chipmunk that finally caught my eye. He ultimately won his place as the feature creature on the invitation.

hipmunk Discovery photo IMG_4205_zps680cbd29.jpg

hipmunk Feast photo IMG_4209_zpsff398bd3.jpg
Cheeks fill with acorns he dashed to and from the shed. At one point he piled through the dry leaves and popped up with a prize nut which demanded immediate attention. He flittered up to the old pine stump by my porch and dismembered the acorn with great skill. Then he was off as if blown by a gust of wind.
The first cartoon version of this creature was cute enough – in fact it even passed inspection from the queen bee right away. I pictured a perky Chipper, cheeks chock full of nuts, and obviously very happy with his situation (in other words with lots of “gifts” lying about in the form of acorns). As art is was fine.

Happy Chipmunk 1 photo HappyChipmunk_zpsb4be550d.jpg
Unfortunately I was unsatisfied. It was cute but not “chippy” enough. Looking back at my photos of the cabin Chipmunk I was struck by the fact that these critters have very prominent noses. My first artistic chipmunk had a mere suggestion of a nose. No, my next effort needed an enlarged honker in order to pass my naturalist muster.

Happy Chipmunk 2 photo HappyChipmunk2_zps610a337e.jpg
So, I re-did the thing and came up with Chipper no. 2. I was much happier with this version because it was a cartoon which was true to the animal depicted and, most importantly, it also received approval from the daughter. The invitations, complete with the honkier chipmunk, went out this week without further alteration.
I plan on releasing a live chipmunk at the shower. I’m sure the ladies, my woodland daughter, and future grandchild, will appreciate how animated an actual woodland creature can be in a confined space!

May 10, 2014

Working the Night Shift

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:57 am

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4317_zps456581fe.jpg

The crayfish towers in my backyard grow faster and higher than the crabgrass, cress, and dandelions do. (I also have some actual grass in my yard but that’s hardly worth mentioning). Each spring, the Burrowing Crayfish (aka Devil Crayfish) pile up dozens of lofty mud turrets. Some, reaching 8 inches in height, cast long dark shadows over the evening lawn which rival those cast by the local mole hills.
The first diggings literally pop up overnight and gain stature over the course of a week or so. They tunnel deep into wet substrate and deposit the excavated soil/mud around one of the opening at the surface. Other entrances are left un-turreted and open flush with the surface. Eventually they complete their work and plug the tower entrances – apparently coming and going via their “naked” entrances.

Devil Crayfish Chimney photo IMG_4341_zps9f5f2cc7.jpg
They are allowed to build their noble chimneys without obstruction because my yard is very wet and the water table is only a foot or so below level surface. A spring stroll across the yard is like walking on a sponge. I don’t get a chance to start mowing until well after the “normal” season for such activity has commenced (at least according to my neighbors who start mowing as soon as the snow is less than 1 inch in depth). In other words, I don’t get an opportunity to knock these towers down – not that I want to – until well into May.
Burrowing Crayfish work and feed under the cover of night so their new construction efforts aren’t revealed until the rising sun of morning. These creatures, although very common, are rarely seen. Last week I took it upon myself to catch one of these clawed arthropods “in the act” and capture it on film…er, digital bits of imagery.
It is assumed that the chimneys are basically the result of excavation and don’t really serve a purpose. In other words, when the digging is done they are normally allowed to collapse on their own. But, it does appear that there is some instinctive need for these turrets early in the season. In other words -again – when they are done they are not really done and will be repaired at least until late spring.
My daughter’s dog accidentally knocked over one of the completed (plugged) towers a while ago. Her antics (the dog’s, not the daughter’s) completely exposed the burrow at ground level. The crayfish re-built much of the turret overnight. The fresh work was apparent as a ring of dark moist soil around the hole. So, I knocked another one of the finished chimneys over and planned on a nocturnal visit to watch the show.
Under the dim glow of a warm quarter moon I snuck across the squishy lawn using my tiny, but intense, Yoda keychain flashlight to illuminate the way. Sure enough, the little Devil was already at work as evidenced by glistening mud pellets piled up on one side. I waited patiently and was able to capture the beast as it returned multiple times with new material and tutored me in the art of chimney building.

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4320_zps90999d55.jpg  Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4323_zps8286f4ab.jpg
The crayfish first appeared at the entrance as a very wet blob of grayish clay. Paired pincers, poking out from the blob, were the only indication that a creature was the impelling force behind the mud ball. In the manner of a bulldozer, the crayfish forced the material up and over the edge. The large pincers (called Chela, if you are a crossword person) are used to contain the sides of the blob while the first pair of legs apparently serve to take up the rear. The whole is retained by the creature’s “face” – leaving the turreted eyes free to search for danger. A few probing pats with the claws secured the mud into position.

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4327_zpsf2c896c2.jpg   Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4324_zps812dba73.jpg
Each surface visit was punctuated by an absence of a few minutes as the crayfish descended to the depths to excavate some more material. It was sensitive to my presence and any movement on my part would send it back down for a few seconds, although the camera flash didn’t seem to register any reaction.

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4321_zpsaeb8ebb2.jpg
On the following morning, I could see that the burrowing beast had completed a small wall around the burrow entrance. Based on what I saw, it would have completed this task within a few hours. I’m assuming the rest of the night was spent feeding and flushing the camera-flash stars out of his eyes.  The chimney was sealed shut a couple of nights later. I’ll let this crayfish construction stand for a week or two more until I am able to fire up the mower.

Devil Crayfish Chimney Showing New Work photo IMG_4339_zps865b36d7.jpg

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