Naturespeak

April 20, 2014

A Pelican Out of Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:36 am

White pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver_zps24f3cf3c.jpg

There are places one may expect to find pelicans and places where you wouldn’t. If you are a regular reader of my blog (a trait that should qualify you for sainthood) you’ll recall that I expressed a northerner’s fascination with the Brown Pelicans around Tampa region. I expected to see them there and there they were. I did not expect to see White Pelicans in Illinois last weekend, although I probably should have.

I’ve seen a few of these monstrous white oddities in Michigan over the years. A few individuals (sometimes up to dozen strong) show up on rare, but regular, occasions at the Pte. Mouillee State Game Area in S.E. Michigan. One can never expect to see them there but their appearance is not totally unexpected. I spotted two there last summer. Had I of been up on my migration knowledge I probably should have expected to see some pelicans when on a recent trip to visit my brother Dan in Rockford, Illinois. It was all about timing and location.

We were on a short “bro” trip to the tiny rural town of Byron not far from Rockford. Rockford itself is about an hour west of Chicago in northern Illinois and Byron is located southwest of town. We took the scenic route which followed the route of the Rock River (the waterway eventually spills into the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill.). For a mid-April day it was crappy weather and one which ended up with wind driven white-outs and several inches of snow on the ground.

White Pelican flock along the Rock River in mid-April photo WhitePelicansontheRockRiver_zpscd898de7.jpg

Against this dismal backdrop the big white birds in the river stood out like so many sore thumbs. They were unexpected (didn’t I already say that?) and I shouted out “Pelicans” and waved a pointy finger in their general direction as we passed. I guess I have a tendency to do this kind of thing. I recall a time forty-five years ago when I nearly caused my dad to careen our car off the road when I announced that I’d just spotted a Pileated Woodpecker flying into the tree line. I guess I did more than just announce the fact – I trumpeted. This time, Dan had the grace to act as if what I was saying was true and calmly turned around, although in retrospect it was an un-believable statement (equivalent to shouting Flamingo or Water Buffalo). Fortunately the pelicans I thought I saw were actually pelicans.

Spotting these birds made up for some of that foolish April weather. There were about twenty or so birds roosting on a gravel bar, along with an equal number of contrasting Cormorants, and a few were swimming in the gray choppy water. One of them briefly took to the air and displayed the enormous 9 foot wingspan (second largest in North America) and black-edged wings. All were decked out in their breeding plumage.  One bird in particular did his best to show off his finery. Actually I say “he” but since both sexes are alike I should just call it Pat or Leslie.

White Pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver2_zpsf43eb220.jpg  White Pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver3_zps729287c9.jpg

From the light yellow wash on the white body feathers and yellow skin patch surrounding the eye, to the multiple shades of pink, orange, and yellow on the bill the spring coloration of the White Pelican is all about subtlety. A distinctive black patch located dead center on the throat pouch adds a touch of dignity. Add to this a prominent crest and two upper beak projections and you have a unique sight (Yes indeedy do!).The beak knobs – actually flattened keels – drop off after the season of love ends and the subtle colors fade to basic yellow orange.

Although these birds seemed out of place to me, they apparently are a regular sight along the Mississippi Valley during spring and fall migration. Their appearance is a much anticipated event as the pelicans make their way north from the Gulf to their breeding grounds in the northern plains of Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, and Central Canada.  They’ll remain for a few days and then move on.

Pelicans are expected around mid-April in Illinois which is exactly when I was there (wow, ain’t it serendipitous).  The migrants don’t traditionally venture as far east as the middle Rock River and this really was the only unusual thing about the whole affair. As the birds slowly rebound from their earlier disastrous encounter with DDT they are becoming more common and I – and you – can expect to see more of them in places where you’d least expect them.

April 12, 2014

Harrier on a High Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:55 am

Northern Harrier photo IMG_3716_zpsac3a3767.jpg

It was a sparkling early spring morning at Point Mouillee – the kind of day that drives the final nails into winter’s coffin. The shallows of the Huron River mouth were bustling with avian life.

A dozen or so Lesser Yellowlegs were probing the silt for tidbits. They nervously bobbed and launched into short twittering flights. They are animated little creatures – always in a rush to get back to where they started. A few paused to bask in the morning sun and one even allowed itself to doze while balancing on one leg.

Lesseer Yellowlegs photo IMG_3677_zps923f73e0.jpg  Perky Bonaparte's Gull photo IMG_3668_zps4f1f7292.jpg

The energy of the Yellowleg cluster was matched by a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls. These dainty gulls were also walking the shallows in search of prey (minnows) but due to their short legs they were dragging belly feathers. A number of the birds displayed their breeding colors – or, in this case – their stark combination of inky black head, gray back, and white body.  Other birds, like the one pictured here, were still in winterized garb with gray pates and prominent black “ear” spots. Napoleon was not among them.

Blue-winged Teal photo IMG_3718_zps3d6f3b81.jpg

Waterfowl of the duck kind were everywhere. Spastic mini-flocks of Blue-winged Teal (see above) darted back and forth along with Shovelers, Bluebills, Mallards and Coots. And the muskrats were busy doing what muskrats are always doing. They were eating tender aquatic plants and swimming about through the muddy waters. Although most of the aforementioned birds will move on, the Mouillee muskrats remain to swim and eat and swim and….

Muskrat at Mouillee photo IMG_3727_zps4181ef1f.jpg

A pair of slow beating wings hovered over all this action in the form of Northern Harriers. These lanky birds of prey are also a year-round feature of the marshes.  They will prey upon muskrats and duck but make most of their living off voles (as well as frogs, snakes, small birds, and even crayfish).  The appearance of these two birds did nothing to alarm the yellowlegs or gulls.

Northern Harier in Flight photo IMG_3690_zps18e32c55.jpg

The Northern Harrier is found across the globe and is as common in the reed marshes of England as in the cat-tail marshes of North America (which are becoming reed marshes just like their European counterpart). Derived from the old-English word “to harry, plunder, or ravage” the common name is also oddly applied to track athletes and to rabbit chasing dogs.  They do plunder rodent populations but do it because they have to – not because they seek treasures. The genus name Circus  is applied to all the world’s harriers and this name makes a bit more sense in that it refers to a circle – as in circling hawks.

Northern Harrier in Flight photo IMG_3686_zps18a42ea2.jpg

Harriers are easy to identify when in flight. They glide low over the marsh grasses with their wings held at a low dihedral angle.  When in sustained glide they rock side to side like giant Monarch butterflies. The wing tips are swept back and pointed, the head small and blunt, and the tail is long and rectangular. Above all, or I should say behind all, they display a white rump patch which is visible from a great distance away.

This pair were probably both females, or at the very least immature birds, due their dark coloration. Males are ghostly grey while the youngsters and females are dark. Later one of them revealed a set of yellow eyes and proved to be a female.

Norhthern Harrier feeding photo IMG_3713_zpsdeec3ef0.jpg

The birds split up when one continued across the river while the other broke off and descended to the ground as if capturing some hapless meadow mouse on the dike.  There it proceeded to rip asunder whatever was held between its sharp talons. They don’t often allow for close approach out here on the open marsh, so it was a treat to be treated to a close look.

Up close, Harriers prove to be very different from other hawks.  They have extremely long legs (maybe the reason track runners are called harriers?), small owl-like heads, and dramatically curved beaks.  The facial features are explained by the fact that they hunt using a combination of sight and sound. Like owls they use facial discs to listen for scurrying prey.

My approach flushed the bird which clutched a chunk of prey as it retreated a hundred yards away to finish its meal. The object of the Harrier interest turned out to be a dead coot. It was a very dead coot that had been long dead before the Harrier happened upon it. Tearing out chunks of the well-aged meat, the hungry predator proved to be a willing scavenger.  It was both the grim reaper of life and a picker of bones.

Northern Harrier Feeding photo IMG_3704_zpsf7f556a2.jpg

April 6, 2014

Walking Dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:15 pm

Opossum crossing the Road photo IMG_3387_zps00029943.jpg

Several years ago I tried to get a live opossum to play dead. After chasing the thing for a half mile through the reeds I was the one who ended up near death with exhaustion. Everything I did – yelling, waving, roaring – failed to convince the animal to shut down. It was a slow motion chase of futility.

I later did some reading up and discovered that not all ‘possums are prone to “fainting.” Some individuals, when faced with danger, will drop like a stone and stay dropped for hours, while others will remain stone-faced in the face of adversity. It was just my luck that I’d encountered the latter type of beast.

A month ago I came upon another wandering opossum and vowed not to repeat my earlier experience. I slowly approached and snapped a few pictures. It was walking just fine (in the usual pace of a drunken man trying to cross the road) when I first spotted it. Gradually perceiving my approach the creature glanced up with beady eyes and lapsed into death right in front of my eyes. No waving, screaming, or imitating an approaching car was required. Yes, I had a possum playing ‘possum right in front of me and all I had to do was walk up to it.

Opossum crossing the Road photo IMG_3401_zps2b8ede32.jpg

The mortal remains in front of me displayed the frost-bitten ears and scarred tail typical of most northern Opossums. This individual had just gone through a very bad winter indeed.

 photo IMG_3427_zpsf0e0c94a.jpg

The “dead” beast allowed me to touch it and yank on its tail but was not completely out of it. Every motion on my part elicited an enhanced sneer on the ’possum’s part. The sneer widened or narrowed like some sort of proximity meter whenever I brought my hand near then pulled it back (see movie here). When pulled by the tail Mr. Opossum came back to life enough to dig in with its claws and resist dragging. When the pulling and prodding stopped the thing pretty much gave up on the act and resorted to just plain sneering as if to say “O.K., genius, I’m not really dead and you can leave me alone now.”

Oppossum playing Dead photo IMG_3414_zps3e1f25e3.jpg

Opossum with a Sneer photo IMG_3419_zpscacd1276.jpg

This whole thing reminded me of a similar death routine performed by the Hog-nosed Snake. This critter will roll onto its back, flop out a limp tongue, and even emit a foul rotting smell. Apparently some ‘possums will also emit a stench, although my ‘possum did not. But to get to the point, whenever a “dead” Hognose is flipped right side up it will roll back into the upside down position. Again, this is a case where the animal has some control over its actions but instinct has to follow a rigid script. Dead snakes lay on their back and there is nothing you can do about it.

The subtleties of fake death are fascinating. Like the snake, the opossum’s ruse is not totally involuntary. It does not freeze uncontrollably – as some folks will state. The animal’s pulse will drop but the individual is aware of what’s going on and will adjust the act where necessary. These are not the actions of a comatose individual. In fact, since the grimace exposes a formidable array of teeth (opossums have more teeth than any other North American animal) it is possible that this part of the ploy is meant as a form of intimidation and thus the reason it is emphasized.

 photo IMG_3421_zps558587ea.jpg

As stated earlier, not all individuals react the same way. Some not only will refuse to faint but will actually hiss and open up their formidable toothy maw as a threat. They never actually carry out this implied threat. Of course, if they did attack then it wouldn’t be a threat any more would it? Any attacking ‘possum would soon loose membership in the Marsupials of America Club.

This calls into question the whole necessity of feigning death in the first place. It is assumed that going limp will confuse predators who need to kill their own prey. Granted, any fox falling for such a trick would have to be pretty dense. It is likely that the act would only work if it is employed with the full stink, limp, I am truly dead and rotten scheme in action.

I ended my interaction with the semi-comatose and somewhat disgusted Opossum and picked it up by the tail and walked it over to the edge of the pavement. Cars do not recognize the difference between dead opossums, “dead” opossums, and bad actors.

March 30, 2014

A Final Feature on the Fine Feathered Fauna of Florida

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:57 pm

 photo a8531871-5bef-4ec6-869d-c17e88fd173a_zps75f54371.jpg

Yes, this is it. My last posting about Florida – at least until I go back again. I started this thing with birds and with birds it shall end (sounds rather biblical don’t it?). Fortunately I beat the Spring Break rush by a full month and avoided the youthful influx of northern turkeys and loons and could concentrate on the native fauna.

A wonderful bird is the pelican; his beak will hold two gallons more than his belly can. With apologies to Dixon Merritt who wrote about this wonderful bird “whose beak will hold more than his bellican,” I inserted the factual reality behind his famous limerick. In so doing I have ruined it, but have done so in the name of SCIENCE. These large fish-eating birds have huge expandable beak pouches (specifically called gluar pouches by the pre-spring break sober students of Yale and the U of M). According to researchers, this pouch can contain three gallons of fish-filled water while the stomach can only hold 1 gallon of the stuff. Wow you say?  So what you say? So there, I say.

Brown Pelican showing Pouch photo BrownPelican_zpsa14a8ed5.jpg

There are two different kinds of pelicans in our immediate world – the brown and the white. The white, which are ….well, white… are mostly birds of the interior and central plains while the brown, which are, as we said, brown… are coastal salt water creatures. The two rarely mix, but do overlap.  You can tell them apart because one is brown and the other is… o.k.. it’s not really necessary to repeat this. Just in case you might be thinking that a particular white pelican in the distance might be a brown pelican that suffered from a horrible bleach factory accident, just look for the prominent knob on the beak (see here) to prove it is a white white pelican and not a white brown pelican. This only works on breeding condition birds but we can’t cover every situation can we.

Brown Pelican in the water photo BrownPelican2_zps3b1ad3c2.jpg  Brown Pelican preening photo BrownPelicanPreening_zps77981c63.jpg

It was breeding time when I was in Florida and the Brown Pelicans were in full romantic form. You can tell if a Brown Pelican is in love if the top of its head and back of its neck is a rich reddish brown (first photo above). Both sexes are alike, by the way. Non-breeders, or peli-cants, sport white heads and necks and a confused look (second photo above).

Brown Pelican on Chick photo BrownPelicanonchick_zps71349763.jpg  Brown Pelican Chick photo BrownPelicanChick_zpse517cb3d.jpg

Within the confines of the Homosassa Springs zoo, a group of free-ranging wild Brown Pelicans had set up a nesting colony and a few of the birds were thawing out frozen chickens for the zoo restaurant. Actually these “chickens” were real baby pelicans, or peli-willbes. It takes around 80 days to nurture a pelican chick to full size. Once fully thawed, the young pelican will look extremely average  for several years until it too becomes brown-headed with love.

High above the nesting pelicans, a Great Blue Heron female came in to feed her chick (see here and below). Young herons certainly give the baby pelicans a run for their money in the ugly department. I suspect that their beak, however, can hold exactly as much as their belican.

Great Blue Heron feeding chick photo GreatBlueHeronandChick1_zpsf04ec7be.jpg

At least these homely little herons will grow up to be noble looking adults, but I’m not sure the same can be said for Wood Storks. I didn’t see any baby storks (I wonder who brings the baby storks to the storks anyhow?) although there were plenty of ugly adult Wood Storks flying about the Florida Gulf Coast. At the zoo, the resident storks were resting in the awkward manner rarely seen in wild birds. Appearing to sit upon bended leg, the birds were actually leaning upon their heels if you consider the actual structure of a bird leg. The leg portion from the bend to the toes represents the foot (the bones are fused together to form a single structure). At least one of the flamingoes were doing the same thing, and for the same reason, but they looked much better while doing it.

Wood Stork photo WoodStork_zps1c4f6b34.jpg

Speaking of Great Egrets – which we weren’t, but now through the magic of awkward segues are – these elegant birds were clothed in their best plumage as they slunk through the Florida landscape. They were as common as street signs in some localities and it would have been easy to ignore them. Because they are so familiar with people they allow for a close approach which is something our northern versions refuse to do. It would have been a mistake to overlook them because of their wonderful display of breeding plumes called aigrettes.

Great Egret Looking Great photo GreatEgretlookingGreat_zps7265a1a7.jpg

These tufts of delicate feathers sprout off the back of breeding egrets and quickly wear away after the season is over.  They are the reason behind the bird’s name and the very plumes once responsible for the species brush with extinction. They were sought as ornamentation for ladies hats around the turn of the last century and the birds were slaughtered for that sole purpose.

I cannot cover the subject of Floridian fauna without addressing the multiple ospreys perching, fishing, and nesting in the region around Tampa. One particular bird, recovering from a recent dowsing, dried his wings in cormorant style. Cormorants don’t have much feather oil and must dry their wings in the sun. Ospreys are suitably oily and don’t require a sun treatment. They normally shed their water weight with a vigorous shake.

 photo OspreyLookingNoble_zps3e46fb17.jpg

I guess this bird was posing for the camera as so many of the Florida birds are wont to do. I guess it’s a tourist related thing. One pair of ospreys, nesting on a high structure overlooking Fort DeSoto State Park, were shamelessly hawking beach towels and sandals from their lofty station. I severely doubt that they were paying state taxes.

Osprey hawking beach towels photo OspreyasBeachTowelVendor_zps26d16ac1.jpg

Anhingas do have to sun dry themselves after a dip. I spotted several of these lanky fisher birds. Due to their habit of swimming with only their long necks exposed above the surface they are also called Snake Birds. One individual, sunbathing on a sea wall along the Crystal River, clearly displayed the reason the name of Water Turkey is sometimes applied to them.

Anhinga photo Anhinga2_zpsb7891155.jpg

Not every bird displayed the dignity and elegance of the Egrets, Ospreys, and Anhingas. The Black Vultures  looked like scorched Turkey Vultures and the Laughing Gulls were laughable when yawning (see beginning photo). The Double-crested Cormorants were at least looking double-cresty (see first photo below)! For the most part, however, the feathered set offered ample reasons for a northern naturalist to return. A sleek little Red-shouldered Hawk patiently permitted a portrait (see second photo below) while a White Ibis was kind enough to remove itself from the crowd of ibises…ibisii…or whatever you call a bunch of them, for a single serene shot. There’s also the dowsing Dunlin and the drowsy Dowitcher to consider.

Double-crested Cormorant photo Double-crestedCormorant_zps8fc9bf79.jpg Red-shouldered Hawk photo Red-shoulderedHawk3_zps817fa6af.jpg

In the manner of awkward segues that have typified this piece, I will conclude with a final photo that has nothing to do with the birds of Florida what-so-ever. Because it is Floridian in content I feel justified in slipping it in before the subject vanishes altogether. Consider this a P.S. (that’s Post Script to any of you unfamiliar with the lost art of letter writing – a thought inserted after the main writing is done). I observed a Grey Squirrel sneaking about the visitor cars at the DeSoto National Memorial. The curious rodent was spending an inordinate amount of time around one of the tires and approached it several times. Before leaving the spot, it cast a longing look back at the hubcap. There is only one sub-title that I can attach to the following photo which captured this last glance: “A Grey Squirrel Contemplates whether Lug Nuts are Edible.”

Squirrel contemplating lug nuts photo SquirrelContiplatingifLugNutsareEdible_zpsedd3dada.jpg

 

March 23, 2014

Nickernuts and Piddocks

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 am

This will be – I promise – the next to last regurgitation of my trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Like a mother bird coughing up something for her young, I perform this task for your own good. I also perform this task because so much of what I saw there was “new” to me and tingled my naturalist senses. What comes out may not fully resemble the original product but it is nutritious and, since you have full control as to whether you read this stuff or not, I will continue until somebody stuffs a Nickernut Pod down my pants.

I am fascinated with regional names and seed pods. Tucked among the White Mangroves of the DeSoto National Memorial site at the mouth of Tampa Bay are plants which simultaneously satisfy both categories. I am referring to the Gray Nickernut vines. Draped innocently on the low mangrove branches, these woody vines are armed with thorns and double compound leaves.  They are in the pea family. Clusters of bristly dark brown (or light green immature) seed pods are suspended at regular intervals along the vines.

Like a coin purse from hell, mature pod spits open to reveal a cargo of large smooth seeds. The pods are about three inches long and just big enough to contain three one-inch diameter seeds. Because of their resemblance to clay marbles, both in color and texture, vines in this family came to be known as marble plants – using the Dutch word for marble which is “knikker.” Combine the fact that these particular “nuts” are gray and you have the species name of Gray Nickernut.  I’m not exactly sure why a Dutch term was used, but am glad for it. There are dozens of Knickernut species throughout the tropical regions of the planet and it is possible they were first named in the Dutch East Indies!  Hey, call me nuts but that might explain things (the name – not my being a nut).

 

Eventually the natural drying process forces the pods to peel wide open and drop their seeds to the sandy ground. Many of the seeds will be flushed away by rising tide waters and travel for thousands of miles on the open ocean currents. Because of this ability to withstand long salt water exposure Nickernut seeds are collectively called Sea Beans. The seeds wash up on distant shores and take root if not collected by human hands. The Gray Nickernuts are rather bland, but other species in the group are brightly colored and all are frequently stung together to make attractive Sea Bean necklaces.

Personally I would never be caught dead wearing a Sea Bean necklace, but might try out another popular use of Nickernut seeds (especially since I am now the proud owner of 4 gray sea beans). Apparently in some parts of the Caribbean mischievous children will briskly rub a Nickernut back and forth on their clothing in order to heat it up and then touch the scorching nut onto the flesh of an unsuspecting victim. Now that’s good old homemade fun. Imagine how unsuspecting my northern friends will be when I burn them with one of my tropical nuts. Sure those Caribbean folks are always on the watch for red-hot Nickernuts, but how many Michiganders would suspect a Nickernut attack!

As far as I know, Caribbean children do not perform nasty tricks with Piddock clams. These burrowing mussels dig tunnels into wood or rock and are near impossible to extract. One sizable tree limb lying on the ground adjacent to one of the Knickernut vines (I just had to say Nickernut once more) was riddled with clam holes. Now dried and exposed, each woody hole contained the shelly remains of the single Wedge Piddock clam that excavated it. The gapping maws of several dozen dead clams stare out at you.

When alive, the Piddock barely fits its shell. A pair of siphons sticks out the “back” end and a fleshy mantle and foot out the other. They employ a combination of methods when drilling into hard substrates (some species can actually burrow into solid rock). The leading edge of the shell has a rasp- like surface which acts to scrape away at the sides of the burrow while the mantle (the skin folds which contain the living animal within the shell) exude a digestive chemical to soften the substrate.

 

Their burrows are perfectly cylindrical and about one inch deep – just enough to enclose he animal and allow for it to suck in micro-contents through its siphon. The shell itself is quite thin, however, and the animal requires the protection of a burrow. Unfortunately this attraction to floating wood subjects the colony to the whims of waves and wind. Once cast up high on a beach they will wither and die in the scorching sun.

Here in the north we ask whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise if it is not heard. I submit that Florideans can now ask if a colony of dying Piddock Clams screams if no one is there to hear them!

March 16, 2014

Habitat for Huge Manatees & Fine Little Fiddlers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:26 pm

It would be easy to re-enact 90% of my experience with the manatees of Florida’s Gulf Coast. All I would need to do is submerge some large potatoes in a tub of water and surround it with a throng of Lego people. The Lego form to my left would be my daughter, my partner in crime on this Florida adventure, while the rest would be various refugees from Star Wars, Pirate, and other play sets.  O.K., this isn’t  -and I realize it – but because of the commercial nature of Homosassa Springs it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the manatees on “display” there are wild animals. It is the perfect Habitat for Humanity and Huge Manatees. Ignore the crowds and their comments and you will discover fascination with the potato- beasts in the water below.

The manatees of Florida need to cluster around warm springs and power plant discharges during the winter. They cannot withstand temperatures below 68 degrees F. The waters of Homosassa Spring are consistently 72 degrees F and offer a winter spa opportunity for these essentially tropical beasts. The spring waters flow into the Homosassa River and journey a short distance to the Gulf but the cold-season manatees stick tight to the sandy bottom of the outflow.

A small herd of about 12 animals was present on the day of our visit. Most of them were lying motionless and spud-like on the bottom.  One large cow and her calf ventured out into, and returned from, the open river during our time there (prompting a nearby dad to proclaim “Look there’s a calf and a baby” to his young daughter. She reminded him that he meant to say “calf and cow” and he remained silent for the next ten minute).  The only other visible action involved a bob to the surface every few minutes for a breath of fresh air through their nostrils. The nose holes are controlled by a muscle which opens then seals them shut before the creature submerges.

 

From above the most – in fact the only – distinctive feature of their body outline were the large flattened tails. It was surprising (to me, anyway) that very few of them displayed any large nicks or notches in these rubbery appendages and only one displayed significant boat prop scars. The eyes were visible only as small puckers located among the face folds. Because their eyelids are circular affairs this creates the delightful star eyed look so popular on the million or so figurines and manatee toys for sale at the nearby gift shop.

Manatees (West Indian Manatees to be precise) are remotely related to the elephants and because of this ancestry they can claim a source for their bulk (up to around 1,200 pounds and 12 feet long), vegetarian diet, and their tooth arrangement. Like elephants they have a procession of teeth that migrate forth like a conveyor belt. Old worn teeth are shed off the leading edge as newer teeth join the row from the back. There are never more than 6 teeth in each jaw at any time.

Wikipedia, that e-spring of flowing facts, figures, and fallacies offers the fascinating tidbit that the name Manatee originated from the Caribbean (Taiho) Indians who called them “Manati.”  According to this source the name translates simply into “breast.”  I’m not sure what to say about this.  Hopefully it means something more expansive like “Hairy fish with breasts” and acknowledges that unique mammalian trait. Perhaps it actually means “potato” – who knows?

Now, so much for the Manatees. Since I can’t add anything original to this part of the discussion I’d like to switch habitats to a mangrove swamp adjacent to the clear blue waters of the gulf. At one corner of the grove the white sands of the beach at … (I can’t remember where!)… were occupied by a herd of tiny sand crabs.  Enjoying their opportunity to feed on exposed flats they busily scuttled into and out of their burrows.

Although I can’t say which species, I can say that they were Fiddler Crabs – probably of the genus Uca. I can also say that all of the individuals in this cluster were mostly females because they lacked the large fiddle claws. I certainly don’t say these things with ultimate authority but will say it none-the-less. One character of note is the figure of a “dancing cat man” on their carapace (back) which led me to the above conclusions. Can you see it?… sure you can… It’s right there like a Rorschach ink blot. It’s amazing what the hot tropical sun can do to the thoughts of a northern naturalist.

During high water the dancing crabs retreat into J-shaped burrows. They emerge at low tide to clean out their digs and feed. The larger sand balls clustered around the burrow entrances are the result of digging while the smaller balls are the result of feeding. They roll the grains about to scour off bits of algae and diatoms from the surface.

In and out, out and in, they reacted to every movement from above – unlike the manatees who reacted to nothing from above. I must admit that the crabs were far more entertaining than the manatees but acknowledge to each its own habit and habitat.

Behold the Dancing Cat Man!

March 9, 2014

Of Killer Sparrows and Husky Doves

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:34 pm

My previous posting being of a fishy nature, I’d like to briefly turn your attention to some feathered residents of Florida. I say briefly, because I’m not going to talk about the Pelicans and Ibises (Ibisii…Ibisisis or whatever you call multiple birds of the Ibis kind) until after we look at some more obscure things. This is not a birding blog. However (he says with a furled hypocritical brow) there were a number of “lesser” birds that captured my attention.

Northern migrants such as Yellow-rumped Warblers, Phoebes, and some Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere in the Gulf Coast area around Tampa. It was nice to see them a few months earlier in the year than I am accustomed. Somehow they looked different in that sub-tropical setting – perhaps because they were not yet engaged in the stressful job of courtship and young-rearing. I won’t go so far as to claim that they were on vacation but admit to the possibility that they were wearing sun-screen and therefore had an unfamiliar appearance. I look forward to seeing their pale, stress-filled little selves when they return to Michigan.

A Butterbutt at Homosassa Springs

Phoebe at Crystal River

The crows flying about the region looked, at first glance, to be Common Crows but upon calling they uncorked a very different sound. Rather than “Caw, caw” they uttered guttural hi-lo “Uh uh” calls (like a scornful parent catching a child reaching into the cookie jar).  These were Fish Crows.  Smaller but otherwise nearly identical to the Common sort, Fish Crows spend most of their time around wetland habitats. Like their larger cousins they cluster into large flocks and generally make their presence known wherever one traveled along the coast.

Boat-tailed Grackles were another fascinating member of the blackbird family found within the sound range of the ocean waves. These nearly crow-sized grackles put our Common Grackles to shame (an odd thing to say about an already shameful bird!). They are so called because of the tremendous keel-shaped tail found on the males. I have to say, as grand as that tail was, it was their startling coloration that impressed me the most.

At Hudson Beach the male grackles were pumping up for courtship and displaying to each other in grand fashion. Resplendent – and I mean to imply the full glory of that word- in glossy purples, blues, and blacks they faced off with bills pointing skyward (see above and here). A pair of males directly over my head, on a lamppost, took turns puffing up, vibrating their wings and blinking at each other (see video here). Each blink flashed a white membrane over the eye and conveyed part of an overall message saying something like “Oh yeah, I’m am da best boid and don’t you’se forget it!”

Mixed in with the Boat-tails at Hudson Beach, steroid-pumped Mourning Doves cooed out their mantra – or so I thought. These boids…er, birds turned out to be Eurasian Collared Doves. I won’t insult your intelligence (any more than I already have) by explaining why they are called “Collared” or “Doves.” The “Eurasian” part indicates that they are foreign imports which became established in the Bahamas and quickly spread into Florida and northwest into the plains states. Their husky calls can only be described as the type of call you’d expect from a Mourning Dove the size of a city Pigeon. It is both comforting and annoying at the same time.

Personally, the Loggerhead Shrikes provided one of the more pleasant surprises of my visit. Had I been a competent birder, I would have researched things beforehand and discovered that these birds are very common in the south. I would also have been forewarned about the Collared Doves etc… Of course, I did not and thus I was surprised by every bird that revealed itself to me (call it the Babe in the Woods syndrome or B.W.S.). When a Loggerhead Shrike boldly perched before me on a fencepost during my very first venture into the neighborhood, I was delighted. They also put in an appearance at Fort Desoto.

As members of the song bird clan they appear like under-sized Mockingbirds but are, in fact, Killer Sparrows of a very different nature. Shrikes are predators. Oddly enough, they are only partially specialized for their task. Like their predatory club-mates the hawks and owls they have stout hooked beaks. Upon closer examination it can be seen that they have a notched beak tip like that found on members of the Falcon clan. Unlike other members of the predatory union, they do not have sharp talons or robust legs. In other words they are sparrows with hawk heads.

The large head is quite obvious on these shrikes. The name Loggerhead literally means “blockhead.” They tackle small to medium sized prey such as grasshoppers, lizards, small snakes and even mice with a push-over attack and some deadly bites (on the neck of vertebrates). They then carry their vanquished prey to the nearest barb-wire fence or thorn bush and impale them on one of the handy spikes for safe keeping. Images of Vlad the Impaler come to mind. The thorn, taking the place of talons, holds the prey as it is dismantled by the Shrike’s sharp beak.

My only regret was not locating one of these impaled victims during my stay. I have seen a Deer mouse so impaled by a Northern Shrike back up in my neck of the woods, so I can’t be too picky. Overall the lesser birds of Florida, even the Glistening Grackles of Greatness and Killer Sparrows, put on a good show well worth the admission price.

March 2, 2014

Crevalle Jack and the Spanish Mackeral

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:13 pm

There is no easy way to start a Naturespeak series about my brief trip to Florida because there is too much to talk about. Putting a northern naturalist into a southern – near tropical -clime in mid-winter can create a state of over-stimulation. I suppose you could call it an overdose. In other words, I don’t know where to begin. I could start rattling off about manatees and pelicans or anoles or ibis flocks (does one say ibisii for plural on this one?). Or, how about the fiddler crabs, mangroves, alligators and cabbage palms – not to mention the Knickkernuts? See, you get my point.

So, I will begin at an arbitrary point with no rhyme or reason as to what is most or least impressive. Let’s start with a few fish just because we can and because they have some wonderful names. Florida is a place of fantastic place names such as Weeki Watchi and Chassahowitzka, which are rivers in the region north of Tampa. Being on the Gulf of Mexico, however, fish and fish names are also part of the mix. Let’s take the wonderfully named Crevalle Jacks.

The freshwater spring at Homosassa is best known for its herd of manatees. As exciting as it was to watch these huge potatoes sleep on the bottom, however, the swirling schools of fish demanded the most eye time. As viewed from the glass-enclosed observation pod their motions are mesmerizing. Watching the tornado tube column of swimming Jacks was enough to induce a hypnotic state. Because they are fast swimming marine fish they have a hard time staying still and so they do laps, as it were, around this huge natural hot tub all day long. The waters issue out of the earth at around 72 degrees F.

There are dozens of species of Jacks and the Crevalle represents a typical member of the family Carangidae.  Like all members of the tribe they have compressed silvery bodies (laterally compressed in fisheese), a series of boney scutes on the body just ahead of the tail, and deeply forked tails (lunate or crescent moon shaped). Their face is blunted and expressionless. The side fins, or pectorals if you prefer, are extremely long and taper down to a fine whisp and the matching top and bottom fins each terminate a saw-toothed row of finlets down to the base of the tail fin. A sleek racing fish if ever there was one.

The name Crevalle Jack apparently stems from a root word cavalla– the feminine form – of horse. I will not go into details because I don’t know or care. It can be said that the scientific name Caranx hippos has a very clear reference to a horse (hippos is Greek for horse). There is nothing horse-like about these fish, however. They do not graze and, in fact, are veracious predators. The origin of Jack is more nebulous. When I came upon the phrase that cavalla is another meaning of jack I prematurely decided to end this thread with the admission that “I don’t know Jack.”

I do know that Craville Jack would be a great name for a brand of rum or a horse-faced rum swiggler in some future pirate movie.

Another oddly named fish of Homosassa Spring are the Snooks. These large wall-eyelike fish hang out close to the observation glass where they display a neat racing stripe down the side. Elsewhere, large Florida Gars (lacking an unusual or even creative name) perform terrific manatee imitations by lying perfectly still on the bottom close to shore.


It was on a saunter down the fishing pier at Fort DeSoto, located in the mouth of Tampa Bay well south of Homosassa, that I (we, actually – my daughter and myself) encountered another fascinating ocean fish with yet another intriguing name. Several seasoned fishermen were plying their sport over the rail. One of them had a fish tucked into his bucket and I stopped to ask if I could take a look. His prize was a Spanish Mackeral. He simply referred to it as a Mackeral and dinner. I was unable to find out why it is considered especially Spanish but certainly understand why it is neither Dutch nor Norwegian.

Like the Carville Jacks, the Spanish mackerel is another one of those sleek oceanic speedsters. The identifying feature on this species is the galaxy of yellow spots on its flanks. The fisherman quickly offered to lay down his ruler to serve as a comparison and even thought I might want to hold it up as if I had captured the thing. Assuring him that my interest was strictly as a naturalist, I re-focused my camera on that neat little keel on the tail stem which is found on oceanic speedsters.

He pondered the feature as if he’d never seen it before and asked what it was called. Unfortunately I had no good answer other than “a neat keel-like thing.” Doubtless he was un-impressed with the Northern Naturalist. I later looked it up and found it to be called a “caudal keel”. This feature, also found on tuna and sharks, provides stability and support and is not found on any freshwater fish that I know of (note the qualifier in that statement).

Finally, I would like to mention the humble Scrawled Cowfish. Cow fish are well protected by a complete boney shell made up of fused hexagonal bone plates. Once seen, there is no doubt as to why a cow fish is called such (the scrawled part comes from the short lines decorating the body). They are equipped with two little forward facing horns over their eyes. Two additional horns face backwards next to their anal fin which would suggest an alternate name of horn butt just in case the old name runs out.

The beach near Bayonet Point was littered with their sun-dried carcasses where tourists and shorebirds were picking at their remains. Ruddy Turnstones sought access through chinks in the cow fish armor for bits of fish jerky clinging to the inside of the shell. Most of the fish were picked clean. One of them returned home with me and is banished to the back porch until it no longer smells of ocean (and other things).

I am not done with my Floridian rambles yet and will return to the subject next week. Meanwhile I’ll soak in this Michigan winter and return to my native roots. It is funny that in this discussion about Florida and unique names, I can only recall one other four-lettered name for snow and it too starts with the letter “s.”

February 22, 2014

Cowbirds Amongst the Cows

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:37 pm

There is little reason to celebrate Cowbirds, but the sight of thousands of ‘em does invoke some small sense of awe. Most cowbirds migrate south for the winter and you wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect to see any until winter has released its grip. On a recent trip down the road to Calder Dairy for some farm fresh cream and whiffs of bovine dung, I was amazed to see a huge flock of these blackbirds hanging about the place.

The pines adjacent to the parking lot were adorned with their shimmering black and brown bodies and the cow barn was equally packed with feathered life. It was bitter cold and very wintery. There was nary a touch of spring in the air yet the cowbirds were present and very much accounted for. The scene was rendered slightly magical by gentle falling snow and the bubbling sounds generated by a thousand little throats.

Being early February, it was possible that this was a very early migrant flock. I do know that the birds weren’t there back in January. An even mixture of Starlings peppered the flock, however, so it had the make-up of a generic off-season blackbird flock. Birds of a black feather do flock together during the cold months.

Technically these birds are called Brown-headed Cowbirds and even a cursory glance at a male bird proves this to be an appropriate name. Personally, and I have stated this before, I believe the brown heads result from all black birds following closely behind load-dumping cattle. Of course, this is not true but it provides a great memory trick for name recognition. Why anyone would need a memory trick to remember the name of Brown-headed Cowbirds is beyond me but then again so much of the world is beyond me. The original cows followed by these birds were Great Plains Bison and they gradually switched to domestic cattle when they replaced the wild bovines. The domestic hind ends also allowed the cowbirds to travel east and establish themselves on the Great Plains of Monroe County, Mich.

Female cowbirds are all brown – which means that they are either completely covered with cow dung or simply un-encumbered by the need for black feathers. No matter what, the females are possibly the most generic looking bird on the planet. A good way to identify a female Cowbird is the complete lack of any distinguishing features. Remember that cowbirds are nest parasites that need to sneak into and out of other bird nests in order to lay their eggs. You do not find nest parasites adorned with magnificent crimson crests or plumed tails.

 

There is always plenty of feed lying around a farm. Apart from feeding the livestock this also provides a horn of plenty for the wintering poop birds. The Calder Farm would be as close to paradise as an earthbound bird could expect would it not be for the presence of a wandering source of anarchy in the form of a black cat. I’m sure there are plenty of loose felines around the farm, but one of them caught my eye.

Normally I would rather throw my camera into a fresh pile of cow poo than use it to take a picture of a cat. I was temporarily fascinated by this feline. It sauntered by as if on a Sunday walk, even pausing to “clean itself” in that glorious cat manner. There were several drops of rich red blood frozen on its whiskers indicating the source of it latest meal. To say it looked guilty would be an understatement. The winter feedlot birds, including the plentitude of cowbirds, are a constant source of personal satisfaction.

February 15, 2014

Fowls in the Winter Stream: Part 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:48 pm

Saw Bills and Hoodies

The mergansers are the most unusual looking ducks swimming the River Raisin this season.  Although technically “ducks”, they are not defined by the typically flat bills of that group. Mergansers are fish eating birds and their beaks are elongated into perfect piscine grabbers. This adaptation goes so far as to provide them with teeth. Yes, I know, birds don’t – and can’t – have true teeth (or lips for that matter) but can have tooth-like projections along the edge of the beak. They are succinctly called “saw bills” by hunters.  Mergansers exhibit this trait to such perfection that their beaks look exactly like those of the spotted gar – a very toothy fish-eating fish. They are fish ducks with fish faces!

Two species of mergansers are operating in the open waters of the Raisin as well as an equivalent section on the Huron River in Flat Rock: Common and Hooded Mergansers. The smallest ones, the Hoodies, are among the flashiest of the tribe and of all waterfowl. Only the Woodies (Wood Ducks) out-do the Hoodies in this department. This is, of course, up for argument …but not here.

Both male and female birds are present and both are worthy of admiration. Female birds, typical of their sex, are subtly shaded and their heads are wonderfully topped with glorious tufts of “hair.” It is a mark of my age to compare them with Phyllis Diller but I realize this has no meaning to the Jimmy Fallon generation. Since I’ve promised myself to limit my allusions to such anachronistic things such as typewriters, dial phones, and eight track tapes I will let a frazzled paint brush serve as my un-dated metaphor.  Oddly enough, paintbrushes have been around for thousands of years and are extremely anachronistic yet are still used daily.

 

Male Hooded Mergansers are magnificent beings. Resplendent in pin-striped maroon, black and white body décor the guys have pliable crests. Adjustable according to mood or behavior, the crest – or hood – can be laid back in the manner of wind-swept wheat or fully expressed as a full white fan. When diving, the crest is lowered to create an aerodynamic shape for underwater work (they pursue small fish like feathered seals).

Above the water surface, the crest is fanned out. When alerted to danger, or used as a courtship tool, it is opened to its full extent. One might get the impression that these guys have really large heads whenever the crest is fully hooded, but is mostly composed of air. Indeed, it might be tempting for female readers to state that this is a natural male condition but by this statement I mean to say that the bird’s head is actually very small and that the feathers are very long.  They are pin-head fowl. When side-lit in the morning sun, this trait is clearly displayed.

 

Larger Common Mergansers are mixed in with the Hoodies. Commonly called Gooseanders , these birds are nearly twice the size of their Hooded cousins.  I’ve only seen the females this winter. These birds are mostly gray backed with crested rusty heads. When resting (or possibly meditating) they depress their crest tightly in line with their head and neck profile. When actively hunting, however, this crest is opened in wild glory.

 

The fishing behavior of these mergansers is delightful to watch. They swim against the current and regularly dip their faces beneath the surface for a peek. While so engaged they appear like snorkelers cruising for seashells. Upon spotting their potential victim they plunge into the drink and chase their finny prey (see below & here).

Although we are fixating upon their sleek above-water appearance, the mergansers are rendered ungainly by their long legs and huge webbed feet. Their legs are located far past the mid-line of their bodies – an arrangement perfect for darting underwater. Unfortunately they are unable to walk very far on land or ice due to this hobbling arrangement.

Given the above foot and life facts, it would be easy to suspect that mergansers are 100% tied to the liquid element but that would be wrong. These birds are tree nesters, believe it or not.  They nest in tree cavities. In another few months they will be heading to the northern forests to raise a new generation of sawbills in the trees.

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