August 25, 2015

Whale Watching for Loons

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 8:39 pm

Common Loon photo IMG_0780_zpsq9tvnw9b.jpg

Lake George is a sizable body of water located just south of West Branch, Michigan. Like many small northern lakes it presents two faces during the summer. It becomes a boiling pot of motorboats and Jet skis during the weekend, thanks to the public launch, and a slew of private residences populating half of its shores. The other half of the lake is bordered by wild lands, however, and for most of the week it is calm and serene.

Two of the lake’s residents, a pair of Common Loons, are tied to this wild side and are the epitome of wildness themselves. It is hard to image how the birds put up with all the hub-bub – perhaps they leave for calmer waters during peak activity and then return after the last wakes die down. One could imagine that such birds would be a bit on edge.  Imagine my surprise when a recent encounter with these Loons was both up close and personal.

When my wife and I first pushed out into the Lake George water with our kayaks there was no sign of life.  The weekend boaters were gone and the lake surface was as glass reflecting a clear blue summer sky. As if entering the world for the first time, a loon magically popped up out of the water immediately ahead of my kayak. It eyed me severely and I expected it to immediately disappear from whence it came – never to be seen again. Indeed it did dive again but bobbed back up in the same place. It continued to do so as if we were not present.

Common Loon photo IMG_0639_zpsy0dkmrzp.jpg   Common Loon photo IMG_0659_zps4xxe2jai.jpg

Another bird soon joined in, also appearing to ignore our presence, and the two cavorted about, around, and under our kayaks for well over 20 minutes. Both birds were actively fishing and engaging in completely normal behavior. Swimming with their heads dipped under the surface they eyed the depths for quarry before taking a plunge. Every now and then one would open up it’s wings and send a spray of golden water droplets into the air.

Common Loon photo IMG_0625_zpsynsd5jmq.jpg  Common Loon photo IMG_0651_zps0coc9lww.jpg

It was impossible to tell where they would pop up again after a dive and, more often than not, they’d surface even closer than the point at which they disappeared.  The only wildlife viewing experience I could equate this to was whale watching off the coast of Maine. Although the scale was dramatically different, the quality was in the same category. Upon re-surfacing they even audibly expelled air! And frankly, there really is nothing to compare to the look of those fiery red eyes with mere pin-prick pupils.

Common Loon photo IMG_0789_zpsbc7oyy3r.jpg   Common Loon photo IMG_0787_zpsc7y3ghtl.jpg

At the time, the event seemed a “once in a lifetime” thing and we were willing to accept it as so. Upon returning to the lake a week later, however, the sequence repeated itself and the only limiting factor turned out to be our available time on the water. We were the visitors to this lake and the loons, well, were residents operating within the limitless bounds of wildness.

Common Loons astride a Kayak photo IMG_0617_zps0ggipkdh.jpg

July 23, 2015

Flight of the Sphinx

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 9:17 pm

Spurge Sphinx pupal skin photo IMG_0090_zps65so1n5y.jpg

Last summer I brought you some incredible views of a Spurge Sphinx caterpillar from Northern Michigan. Later in the month, after the leathery burrowed into the soil to complete its third stage of metamorphosis, I peeled back the moss to reveal the equally fascinating pupa at the end of the tunnel. The adult emerged last month, after a long frigid winter at the bottom of a dirt filled coffee cup, and it was worth the wait.

I was afraid of missing the moment and came close to doing so. One can never tell when the moth will emerge after months of non-activity. There was even the possibility that the winter would prove too much – especially given how low the thermometer plunged at times– and that the pupae would perish. Let’s just say that it was an incredible relief to finally peel off the lid last month and see the empty pupal skin (see above) and its former occupant clinging to the side.

Spurge Sphinx Pupal Skin photo IMG_0082_zpskyy9za97.jpg  Spurge Sphinx Adult photo IMG_0076_zpswxewsx8r.jpg

I missed the actual emergent moment by a day or so and could see that the moth had been out for at least one night of activity within the container. Many of the scales were worn off the back of the thorax and the ends of the wings were slightly worn, but it was in pretty good shape otherwise. Spurge Sphinxes, like most of their clan, are subtle beauties to behold. The rosy flush evident on the body and undersides was especially magnificent on this individual.

Taking it outside for a better look in the low evening sun, it began to vibrate its wings in preparation for takeoff. Moths need to raise their body temperatures up to near human levels in order for the thorax muscles to work and they do so by shivering. This one began with a staccato flutter of the wings (see movie here) which evolved over the course of a few minutes into a blurry all-body tremor (see second movie here).

Just before takeoff, the thing was shaking so much that it was perpetually out of focus – or appeared so. With a final wipe of the eyes and a twist of the head it rose off my finger and flew off (see final departure here). Yes, it did seem to motion with the foreleg, as if giving a wave, but I won’t go there. I’m the one that eventually waved, saying “it’s been good knowing you.”

July 13, 2015

What Do the Skinka Do?

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 8:35 pm

Five-lined Skink Sunning photo IMG_0348_zpsqsefxcqk.jpg

The skinka – the five-lined skinka to be precise –do what it hasta do to stay alive and healthy. A big part of this survival strategy involves keeping the inside fires burning and because lizards like skinks don’t have inside fires they depend largely upon the generosity of the sun. For them life is all about generating warmth, keeping it, and turning it down when necessary.  An overly warm or dangerously cool skink is a lifeless skink. Cold-blooded creatures are not held hostage by solar power and ambient air temperatures, however. They can play the micro-habitats within a habitat like a fine-tuned instrument. A deeply shaded spot will allow for cooling, a lightly shaded location permits a slight elevation in body temperature, and a bright patch of open sun will, well, you get the idea. They move around quite a bit over the course of a day, an hour, and even a minute to exploit the mini spots within their macro domain.

The word to cover this life skill is behavioral thermoregulation, is only slightly shorter than the length of the creature itself. I promise not to use it again except in passing.

My Dollar Lake dock is part of the range of a cluster of Five-lined Skinks who use it from time to time for sunning. I never know when I’ll spot one and will go many months between sightings. Last week I nearly stepped on one. The individual, an adult male, was only slightly perturbed by my presence. Adult Skinks lose the five line blue-tailed look of youth as they mature and attain a bright reddish hue about their heads – looking as if they were victim of a head cold.

Five-lined Skink Sunning photo IMG_0347_zpsygxupvbw.jpg     Five-lined Skink Sunning photo IMG_0345_zpsgeh3hzdl.jpg

The skink did a surprising thing within my view. Rather than run off, it pressed its belly and chest flat against the dock wood and folded his feet back as if in a strait jacket. In this legless pose the thing absorbed heat from the warm surface. Within a moment or two it rose up and flitted across the dock and jumped into the shoreline weedery.  This being the first time I’ve actually observed a behavior other than fleeing I was fascinated by this deliberate little act of thermoregulation. It was a tiny peek into the skinkas daily do…ings.

July 2, 2015

Woodpecker Watering Hole

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 9:16 pm

Red-belly at the Tree Bar photo IMG_0173_zpstnyihoz1.jpg

Woodpeckers will come to earth, so to speak, for the purpose of getting liquid refreshment but many of them avoid this potentially dangerous trip by frequenting tree top watering holes. Certain shallow tree cavities regularly accumulate rainwater and serve nicely as natural reservoirs. One such drinking establishment exists on a Red Maple overhanging my shed at Dollar Lake.

Red-belly at the Tree Bar photo IMG_0175_zpso2dwlusv.jpg

I managed to catch a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the act one fine late June morning. It spent several minutes dipping into the reservoir and raising its beak to let the refreshment obey the laws of gravity and slide gently throat-ward. Based on the obvious look of satisfaction the bird’s time was well spent. It left with a red(dish) belly full.

Such tree water probably has a strong “woody” taste in the best of conditions but this might be a preferred essence for discriminating woodhammering fowl.

Red-belly at the Tree Bar photo IMG_0177_zpsbltkkhsp.jpg

June 28, 2015

A Midge with Mites Upon’em

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 4:32 pm

Midge with Mites photo IMG_0198_zps5neiliim.jpg

A midge with mites upon ‘em

might be covered top to bottom.

Though small the midges are,

Their mites are tinier by far.

Let me start out by saying that Chironomid Midges are not Mosquitoes.  Similar looking to their blood-sucking dipteran cousins, they do not, and cannot, bite humans. I figure that knowing this will enable you to reserve your slapping energy this summer.   As larvae, midges live in the water and glean a living off microscopic plant matter and detritus. As adults they emerge and engage the world as flying beasts – seeking sap and each other.

Several of these critters landed around me one afternoon. All of them were males seeking refuge from the wind under the porch eaves. I was reading a book about making moonshine whiskey but I doubt that had anything to do with my sudden attraction.  Male Midges have hairy “plumose” antennae which make them easy to separate from the narrow-antennaed females. Heeding my own advice I did not try to shoo them away. Instead, I did the opposite and carefully observed them through the lens of my camera. When several revealed that they had passengers in the form of tiny red mites I was, as they say, “engaged.” Those ensy-weensy flies had ensy-weensier cargo attached to their legs.

Without getting into details, there are probably dozens of species of mite that infest midge flies alone. I found at least nine species over the course of my cursory review of the subject and all are members of a group known as Hydrachnidia. Like the midges, the mites are aquatic in the very first stages of life. They attach to the midge nymphs and transfer to the adult when it emerges. While attached they feed on the body fluids (aka blood) and eventually drop off into the water to resume an aquatic life. While their young are parasites (specifically ecto-parasites – which means they stay on the outside of the body), the adult mites are aquatic predators. Mites are related to spiders and possess eight legs when adult.

Midge with Mites photo IMG_0194_zpsawidav81.jpg

Given the amount of mites glomming onto the two midges I photographed it is amazing that their host could fly, yet all flew with ease. The mites were concentrated on the legs and thorax and left the wings unencumbered. There is no way I could identify the specific mite species involved here because even on an enlarged image they looked like fuzzy views of the planet …er, excuse me…the planetoid Pluto. Researchers, however, have done some work on this topic and discovered that some feed exclusively on the thorax while others concentrate on the long segmented abdomen.

Midge with Mites photo IMG_0181_zps8semsyz9.jpg

My small, along with their smaller, visitors would take flight after a few minutes and leave me to ponder several final thoughts. First, I assume that it is bad taste among midges to mention, or otherwise point out, the presence of mites on their fellow midges much in the same way as it is verboten to point out pimples or warts on humans. Secondly, it is imperative that these midge mites return to the water. It is their duty, therefore, to suck just enough blood out their host to live on but leave enough so that they can return to the lake. The idea is for the male midges to assemble with the females in huge midge clouds for the purpose of mating. I am guessing this is the moment chosen for the mites to drop off or forever regret their decision. There is much I do not know about midge mites, but for the moment this will have to do. Moonshine whiskey sounds a bit more fascinating for the time being.

June 18, 2015

Queen Among Snakes

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 9:14 pm

Queen Snake photo IMG_0135_zpssncjkewt.jpg

I was at the Huron River boat launch waiting for my group to show up and had time to kill (and no problem killing it because the rain clouds were still a half hour away). Looking over the edge of the board walk at the water’s edge I spied an interesting snake draped on the grape vines below.  It literally looked as if was carelessly tossed onto the greenery.

Small and dusky blue gray in color, the creature lacked the expected mottling or patterning of a Northern Water, Garter, or Fox Snake – the common local species of record. A creamy yellow side-stripe bordered by a chocolate stripe pegged it as a Queen Snake and a truly interesting find. I’ve only managed two sightings of this unique critter over the past 30 years or so.

Queen Snake photo IMG_0146_zpslukecwmd.jpg  Queen Snake photo IMG_0140_zps7qwvao5v.jpg

Queens are only found in southern and southwestern part of the state and are never common within their range. In fact, these water snakes are becoming a bit scarce because of their sensitivity to polluted or heavily silted waters. They specialize on crayfish as prey and seek freshly molted individuals as a way to prevent hard shells and pinching claws.

I am at a loss to completely describe the background meaning of the Queen Snake’s name and the scientific name is of little help. Dubbed Regina septemvittata, the whole thing can be translated as the “seven-striped Queen.”  Only young snakes exhibit the seven stripes of note. The adults darken in color and only display four real stripes. While King Snakes are snake eaters, and thus rule over all snakes, I can’t come up with a good generality about Queens other than they tell everyone to eat cake! In the long run, it really doesn’t matter.

The rain clouds traveled faster than expected and a heavy cloudburst eventually propelled the reptile back into the water after a few minutes. Fortunately, I got a good viewing of the Queen and was happy for the opportunity to share it with you.

Queen Snake photo IMG_0144_zpsccliya83.jpg

June 7, 2015

Red-bellied Retreat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:00 am

Pink Version of Red-Bellied Snake photo IMG_9761_zpsvv86xfzl.jpg

Sometimes life comes at you in themed bundles where things seemed related. We certainly notice this on days when nothing goes right but there are also times when a certain word pops up several times or speckled dogs are uncommonly common. As an interpreter I’m always looking to relate natural events together as a packaged unit such as a blog, article, or subject of a speech. The shore side yard at Dollar Lake recently provided me with a Red-bellied Day – sort of.

Raking away the accumulated oak leaves around the fire pit I exposed a small snake sitting upon the moist bare earth. Seeing that it didn’t immediately dart for cover I snatched it for a closer look. My initial glance pegged it as a Brown, or Dekay’s, Snake. The belly proved to be much pinker than usual for this species, however, and cast doubt upon my first impression (this is a nice way to say that I was probably mistaken).

Pink Version of Red-Bellied Snake photo IMG_9763_zpsud7lzdu8.jpg

During the following photo session the little beast did something unusual. Curling its upper lips back into a sneer, it revealed a row of tiny teeth set into black gums. This was Red-bellied Snake behavior. I was looking at a pink-bellied version of a Red-bellied Snake – species whose tummy color can run the gamut from scarlet red to pale pink.  Grouped with Brown and Ring-necked Snakes, Red-bellies are worm-eating snakes only slightly larger than their chosen prey.

As if a pink-bellied Red-bellied snake wasn’t enough, one of the local Red-bellied Woodpeckers showed up on the trunk of a nearby Red Maple later in the day.  Now, I’ve addressed this subject before, but for the sake of bundling I’d like to re-mention that Red-bellied Woodpeckers do not really have red bellies. True they have a reddish “rash” about their tummy parts, but this feature is the least remarkable thing about their identity. Red-bellies (Woodpeckers that is) have a remarkable red-backed head and were it not for the well named Red-headed Woodpecker should be called Red-headed Woodpeckers.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker photo IMG_9788_zpshjrcqzhg.jpg

The woodpecker in this case was an especially reddish individual, however, and even the tannish portions took on a pinkish or salmon-tinged glow when framed in green maple leaves. Please excuse the over use of “ish” in the previous sentence, but nature often requires it when describing creatures or flora that cannot be defined.

My Red-bellied Day, really more of a pink-bellied day, was yet another great Dollar Day on the lake.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker photo IMG_9792_zpsbcfxdqmd.jpg

May 27, 2015

There’s a Joke Here Somewhere

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 4:51 pm

A Bagel photo IMG_9545_zpsugajhajz.jpg

It’s one of my few memorable jokes, or as my wife puts it, one of my three jokes. Organized jokes aren’t my forte. There’s the one about the skeleton at the bar and the human cannonball and things get thin after that. I’m more of a “make up your joke to fit the situation” and “bad pun” type of guy. But, seeing this over-eager Ring-billed Gull holding a thin-sliced bagel the other day prompted one of my organized jokes to bubble to the surface (and one I’m sure I’ve told in the blog previously, but don’t stop me if you heard this one before).

You see, it’s long been a bugaboo of mine when folks call all gulls “seagulls”. There is no such thing as a “Seagull” unless you consider Jonathon Livingston a real bird. Nope, there are Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls and even Greater and Lesser Black Backed Gulls but no actual Seagulls. Some of them indeed live by the Sea and could be called sea gulls, but if one continues with that stream of logic then then a gull flying over a bay should be called a bagel (rim shot).

Thus, a gull with a bagel was too much to resist.

May 17, 2015

Really Most Sincerely Dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:23 pm

Big Brown and Dead Bat photo IMG_9084_zpsgl4rts4w.jpg

Last month, I brought you a little story about a Big Brown Bat hanging around the Monroe County Historical Museum. The little fellow showed up quite suddenly during one of the spring cold snaps and appeared to stick around due to the sustained cold. His chosen location was well sheltered and, in fact, cave-like.  I figured he was in “semi-hibernation” and simply waiting out the cold. We all enjoyed his presence (named him Bruno) and expected an equally speedy departure when a real version of spring arrived later in the week.

When things warmed up and the creature was still present, I began to doubt my earlier assessment. There were no droppings under his perch, but figured this was due to it being a day roost. His pose was virtually the same every day, although “seemed” to shift slightly, perhaps, maybe….. Last week, I checked him out at night and found him still in position and realized something was wrong. When he later dropped to the ground – small, withered, brown, and very dead – at least part of the mystery was solved.

Not only was the bat dead, it was mummified. I thoroughly examined it and can say, in Wizard of Oz fashion, that he’s indeed morally, ethic’lly, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead. And … “not only merely dead, he’s really most sincerely dead.”
In short, he apparently died soon after arriving and his death grip kept him suspended via his claw-like hind feet for those many weeks. In other words, my fellow munchkins, he’s been most sincerely dead for a long time.

Big Brown and Dead Bat photo IMG_9270_zpsbyuezuf2.jpg

I found a small hole in his side that might indicate an injury caused by a BB or shot pellet. Thus we can rule out rabies or distemper with such graphic evidence. Besides, I licked him and haven’t shown any sign of rabidity yet and it’s been a few days (although I am very thirsty as of late). My last theory on this matter, is that after being injured by an ignorant pellet gun shooter the creature sought a perch and died there a few days later. Wind gusts were shifting him about over the weeks and drying him out in the process. One final gust un-hooked his cold dead claws and sent the tiny corpse earthward.

I went back to the last photo I took of him (see the first picture – yes, that is a dead bat!) and saw the evidence I should have picked up on earlier. There was dust on his fur (something that never would be permitted by a live bat) and a sneer on his face that was very un-batlike. And the dropping thing?  Well that was just plain dumbness on my part. A live bat deposits dropping equally at a day roost and a night roost.

So Bruno the mummy enters the annuals of history and I am humbled by a dead bat.

May 11, 2015

One Pic Post: Up Periscope

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:05 am

An Otter in Periscope Mode photo IMG_9149_zps4ohi8jdy.jpg

I’ve learned over the past few years to read the bubbles on Dollar Lake. Different patterns serve as clues to identify certain aquatic critters before they appear above the surface. For instance, a cluster of bubbles issuing from one spot indicates the feeding activity of a muskrat as he pulls up plants from the bottom. A line of bubbles advancing slowly across the surface is the mark of a turtle plowing through the underwater grassland. A procession of quickly advancing bubbles – coming up here and suddenly appearing six feet further on- is the signature of a hunting otter.

A quick line of bubbles suddenly appeared on the lake this past weekend to serve as notice that the otter was back. Actually I’m not sure if it is THE otter or if different individuals come and go (I otter know but I don’t). I do know that crayfish are typically the main menu item. I don’t know exactly what this critter was nabbing this time around but suspect that a painted turtle was part of the fare (based on the large yellow plastron-like item it was swimming with earlier). Its last dive brought up a mysterious cigar shaped item -looking almost like a small foot!

Upon spotting me on the dock the otter periscoped to get a better view. With its sleek short fur, tiny ears, large eyes, and long neck the Dollar Lake Otter looked very much like a seal. Unfortunately I never got a better look because it retreated to the privacy of the wild side of the lake’s wild side. This was about as good a look as one could ever expect so it definitely gets my seal of approval.

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