Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 26, 2007

On Deck with a Bellowing Sturgeon

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:07 pm

April 25, 2007

  It was 48 degrees, raining, windy and terminally gray, but this was my second chance to board the good ship “Sentinel” and I was determined to make it a good day. The fact that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service crew allowed me on board the research vessel again is testament to the fact that I didn’t mess up too much last time. Fisheries biologist Jim Boase, the crew director, appreciates any help he can get in manning the nets and hook lines.  The work is hard, but Jim knows that the promise of seeing sturgeon is a powerful lure.  Last time I was aboard we only caught one, so I was anxious to see a few more before the spring run is over (see “It Ain’t Over before the Fat Sturgeon Sings” for details of my first trip).

 Today we are joined by Dr. Bruce Manny, who has done extensive work on the Great Lakes Sturgeon, and a young man who we’ll call “Remee” – it’s something like that. I’m not good with names, but can tell you that he was born in Ottawa, Canada, raised in Holland and jokes about the French Canadians drinking Pepsi for breakfast.

 Jim felt it was good to have a Canadian citizen aboard – just in case the O.P.P.(Ontario Provincial Police)  pulled the boat over – again. Apparently they pulled the Sentinel over earlier in the week for violating unknown “No Wake” rules. “They were waiting for us,” declared Jim,” we were out in the middle of the channel and they nabbed us.”  The whole affair was let off with only a warning.  Remee assured us that he could handle the situation next time with a “How ‘ya doing, eh” greeting next time. Perhaps a Pepsi offered as a bribe would be in order.

 Our rain-drenched mission was to take us around the vicinity of Fighting Island and the Canadian waters of the Detroit, so Jim held the throttle low for most of the time.

  As usual, the first part of the morning task entailed hauling several gill nets set for Walleye. The first haul was biblical – for lack of a better description.  As the net was hauled to the surface and over the gunwale, it was choked with walleyes. It took the efforts of all of us to pull the heavy net in. The net was fairly bursting at the seams (a net doesn’t have seams, but that’s the only term I can think of at the moment). About 75 fish were piled onto the deck before the entire length of mesh was accounted for.  Twenty minutes of fish extraction followed.

  Since gill nets ensnare the fish behind their gill flap, it takes some delicate push & pull work to get them out.  Continual rain insured an ample supply of aquatic environment for those fish awaiting release. A huge Bowfin and a Short-nose Redhorse Sucker were also mixed in with the lot.

Normally all the fish would be kept for later lab work, but seeing that our buckets would be overloaded, Jim started to measure and toss as quickly as we coaxed the fish out of the fine mesh.  A few were kept as specimens – their first three dorsal fin rays clipped for aging purposes.

  With the aluminum deck patterns permanently impressed into my knees and my fingers numb with cold, I was glad to see the last fish freed from the twine. In reviewing the entire catch, it appeared that most of them were “spent males” This is a polite way of saying that the egg-laying party was over and these guys had performed their – um, “manly duties.” The spawning run had peaked.

  Of the next two nets, one sported an enormous Carp, a Silver Red-horse Sucker, and a few Walleye. The third was completely empty of fish. Noting the accumulated debris in the last net, Dr. Manny shared with us a story from many years ago when the Canadian shoreline nearby was “littered with turds.” Although sure that the gunk on the net was just plant matter this time, I smelled my gloves just to make sure. 

  On the way to the sturgeon lines, we passed a huge bald eagle nest on Fighting Island.  One of the eagles flew up from the waters edge and joined his mate near the nest. There are two such nests along this stretch of the river and the birds are now a regular sight (as opposed to “turdy” years ago).

  Although most of the hooks pulled up from the three sturgeon sets were empty, three of them yielded our desired quarry – “Mishename – the King of Fishes” (to quote “Hiawatha”). When one of these giants is in tow, the line becomes heavy and moves about.  Emerging from the depths, a yellowish outline clarifies into a shark-like visage and an explosion of spray as the fish clears the water via a landing net.

  Sturgeons are extremely slimy and very strong.  Add to this the fact that they are also very heavy and you’ll see why it took all my energy just to hold the slippery behemoths still.  Jim showed me how to grab the large pectoral (side) fin and muscle one 50- pounder over to expose its mouth and remove the hook.  As we wrestled with it, the fish exhaled a sound akin to a bellow. The explosion of air was probably from an air bubble trapped in the gill chamber, but I was impressed none-the-less.

  Once the hook was removed, the fish are cradled in a net supported across the bow of the boat. The first order of business is to weight them by hefting the net from a scale (the other two were in the 40-50 lb. neighborhood as well). Measurements of total length yielded results ranging in the 50-58 inch range and girths around 23 inches. Next, a section of the left pectoral fin ray is removed (for aging). This thick cartilaginous ray has to be cut with a hacksaw, but this doesn’t harm the fish. A PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) radio tag was inserted beneath the skin just behind the head and an orange Floy identity tag secured through the base of the dorsal fin.

  The bellowing fish did not take to any of these procedures kindly.  He fought the entire process and could only be calmed by placing our gloved hands over his eyes. Lamprey scars – red raw circle scars left by the feeding activity of fluid sucking lampreys – marked his left side.  They looked raw and un-healed, so he was probably in no mood for any more poking or prodding.  He was returned to his element in short order and disappeared into the depths with an indignant swish of the tail.

  While all three fish were impressive, the last was the best looking.  This one was distinctly bi-colored.  His upper half was a shade of deep mocha and his lower half was light cream hazel grading to pure white at the belly. A row of imbedded bony plates formed the midline that divided the color shades.  These plates themselves were a third shade of darker brown, so they imparted a distinct repeating pattern down the side.

  We grinned at each other and commented on the beauty as it was lowered back into the water. I think it was Reemy that said “That was a pretty fish” as it slipped away. We all nodded in agreement.  “Yup, pretty fish.  Let’s go home.” 

  Because the rain was relentless, I could only sneak out my camera for a few pictures of the sturgeon procedure. If you take a look at them through this link, you’ll notice that two of the shots are from my earlier fair weather excursion.  The middle shots are of the second rainy day sturgeon – the one that neither bellowed nor looked especially pretty.

April 23, 2007

The Blowball Openeth

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:20 am

  Catching a Dandelion in the process of waking up should not be a terribly demanding task, so I set myself up to achieve this simple task.  Among the many names for Dandelion that have entered the books, “Clock Flower” is one of them. On that note, one of the books indicated that they are so reliable as to “close against the dews of night by 5:30 pm and open by 7:00 am the next day.”  In other words, they are as reliable as clocks.

  The great Swedish biologist Linnaeus once planted a clock garden about his house in which, it is said, based on the opening and closing of different species, one could tell the time of day.  Four ‘O Clock flowers, for instance, are supposed to open up around 4:00 in the afternoon.  History doesn’t record the fact, but it is very likely that Linnaeus was always late for his appointments – or early.

  Plants are very sensitive to sunlight angle, humidity, and the needs of their pollinators, so are rather type A when it comes to regularity. Of course, that sensitivity to a range of conditions also causes them to heed climate conditions before considering the hands of a clock. I should have taken immediate heed when reading a source that mentioned “Four ‘O Clocks in Florida often don’t open until 8 pm.”  Next to that text was picture of one of the plants still fast asleep at 6 pm. 

  The dandelion was supposed to have been one of those time keeper flowers in Mr. Linnaeus’ garden.  So, I decided to test the 7 am wake-up time theory.  Indeed, yesterday morning I was up by 7 am, stumbled out to check on the dandelion just outside my back door, and found it still sleeping. It was still asleep by 8:05 am. It was open by 9:15 am, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when it spread its buttery face.  Already – even given daylight savings time – the dandelion was exhibiting weekend teenager behavior and not “up and adam” cheeriness.

  The other end of the day was no better.  At 5:30 pm, the flower was still at full spread and dancing in the puffs of wind that swirled around it.  At 6 pm, it was the same story. I checked it at 7, 8, and 9, but still it was wide-eyed and perky.  By 9:30 pm, I should have given up, but I was determined to see this thing through.  I grabbed a flashlight and saw it still laughing at me. I thought I detected a wink, a few bags under the florets, but this thing was definitely not hitting the sack. 

  By 10 pm, it was becoming an obsession.  I stormed out, directed the beam at the mocking bloom and noticed it was starting to fold.  Ten minutes later, it was the same.  Five minutes later, no change – just a slight folding.  By 10:45 pm, it was what I would optimistically call “3/4 closed.”  This assumed that it would “full close” soon.  At 11:15 pm. it hadn’t progressed.  It was time for me to fold up for the night.  I resisted the urge to pluck it and send it into permanent sleep, just to prove my evolutionary superiority. No, I’d see it in the morning.

  Upon rising the next day, I expected that the flower closed overnight (probably seconds after I abandoned it for bed). No, this morning it was full open at 7:00 am.  I don’t think it ever fully closed.

  As a result of this totally unscientific research, I conclude that Dandelions do what they do when they want to do it. They sometimes close on dewy nights, perhaps, but stay open on warm balmy nights like last night.  Right now I don’t really care.  One night of not fitting a pattern is good enough negative evidence for me.  When a clock starts giving you the wrong time, it becomes unreliable and needs fixing. Oddly enough, our main living room clock did go on the fritz yesterday.

  Now that I have eliminated the “Clock Flower” idea, I turn to another dead European science guy for something else.  17th century physician Nicholas Culpepper was aware of the many medical properties of Dandelion. The second part of this plants scientific name, Taraxicum officinale refers to its role in the official herbal medicine texts of the day. I know that the plant can cause sleeplessness, but am fascinated to read Culpepper’s statement that the plant “hath many virtues, which is why the French and Dutch eat them in the Spring.”  He goes on to say that this common herb possesses an “opening quality.”

  Aside from wondering why the Germans don’t eat them in the spring, you are probably wondering what “opening quality” means.  It doesn’t refer to the literal opening of the flower, but instead to- and I quote: “it openeth the passages of the urine in both young and old.”  In other words it makes you go to the bathroom.  This explains the second of the two French words referring to our familiar little weed.

 The first French word is “Dent-de-lion” or literally “Lion’s Teeth.”  This is, of course, the origin of the common name and it refers to the toothed edge of the leaf (although there is some controversy here which I won’t get into). The second is “Pissenlit.”  Yes, this means pretty much what you think it does – it causes you to wet the bed! Ah, so that’s why the Germans were so careful.

  Personally, I’d like to leave this discussion with a few other intriguing Dandelion names such as Milk Witch, Priest’s Crown, Pig Snout, and Blowball. Perhaps I’ll get back to these in a later column. For now, I am eying another Dandelion experiment. This one might prove to be more worthwhile than the sleep endeavor.

  I once found a hand-written recipe for Dandelion Wine tucked within the pages of a commercial fisherman’s journal from 1921. There sandwiched between catches of Bullhead, Carp & Mullett (Suckers) is a recipe just begging to be tried.

  You start with two quarts of flowers (packed), add a one lemon……  This could take a while.

April 20, 2007

Ying Yang at the Mouillee Marsh

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:47 pm

April 18, 2007

 Today an overcast sky and a mild wind are attempting to set a desolate mood upon the Pointe Mouillee Marsh (Pointe Mouillee State Game area in N.E. Monroe Co.). I last visited here in late January when it was ice bound and bitter. Now the place is busting with life and sound. Huge flocks of cackling Coots mix with Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, Widgeons, and Mallards. Ring-neck Duck pairs patrol the weedy shallows while Bluebill troops dive in the deeper water. The calls of Red-wing Blackbirds mix with the “Tee-O-Wees” of calling Yellowlegs. Paired Canada Geese, lots of them, protest loudly at incursions from other pairs. They launch low-headed attacks at each other. A flurry of wing beats and honking ends in some reassuring head bobs between partners.

  Atop one of the weathered muskrat lodges, a goose sights tight and motionless upon her eggs. Her neck is extended but laid close to the surface of the lodge as she attempts to conceal her location from this passerby. She blends in very well, although her bright white cheek patch betrays her. 

  Dozens of Mute Swans have also set up nest spots atop other muskrat lodges. Like the geese, they too engage in a blustery display of wing beating aimed at other swans and encroaching geese.  One individual, protecting his nesting mate, launches an attack on a threesome of swans. His slapping wing beats echo across the water and prompts the invaders to flee.  As they become airborne and fly overhead, their wing feathers whistle and vibrate. 

  Defying the very meaning of their name, another Mute Swan – possibly an immature bird – emits a reedy “whe-ow, whe-ow” call from across the way.

  The marsh has almost shed the desolation of winter……almost.  There are about three miles of barren dike enclosing the Lead Unit and the route is littered with death.  The bodies of at least 26 dead muskrats give testament to the dire conditions still faced by the Mouillee ‘rats. Some of the bodies have obviously been there a while and are flattened and hollow from decay.  Others have been scavenged upon and remain only as hindquarters or gut piles.  Many, however, are fresh and clean.  Exhibiting no signs of violence or sickness, they lay in various positions on the fresh grass.  One lies on his side in the middle of the gravel service road. This one had simply stopped in mid-stride and died.

  I approached another animal that appeared so freshly dead that I was prompted to stroke his fur to assure myself that it was truly deceased.  The body was relatively warm, but stiff. A dead reed stem was clutched in his teeth and his squinting eyes were still moist. His fur, far from being matted or disheveled, was lush and reddish orange. In fact, the only thing that hinted at the events leading to his death were a few deep, and unhealed, bite wounds on his tail. 

  It is likely that all these animals were pushed to their limit by the constant competition for food and space. Starvation was probably the grim reaper in this affair, but stress certainly played its part. With no home territory, these animals are forced to battle with other ‘rats and keep moving – moving and battling, that is, until they cannot move anymore.

  A large living ‘rat crossed the dike ahead of me and ambled down to the waters edge.  Looking a bit out of order and confused, he searched about for roots along the sterile edge and swam down the shoreline.  On his way to the water, he plowed through a spider web full of dead midges before entering the water.

The mesh encased his back and peppered his fur with the carcasses of the tiny black flies.   Normally such an affront to the neatness of the pelt would instantly be remedied with a grooming session, but his mind is geared only to the essentials of being. He keeps moving. I get the sense that his time is limited, but, since I will never know his fate, I secretly invent a scenario where this one cheats death

 Even though some 10,000 of their numbers were harvested in the winter trapping season and this current die-off was chipping away at the overburden of population, many muskrats still live here.  Bank dens show evidence of heavy use and swimming ‘rats are everywhere.

  An amorous muskrat couple affectionately groomed each other outside of their den entrance. The male stopped to deposit his scent on the ledge over the burrow by lifting his tail and rubbing his hind end back and forth against the surface.  He then hopped over to his mate, approached her from behind and resumed grooming her fur. 

  Here is a couple that will insure that the muskrats will join in the explosion of spring life at Mouillee.

 

April 17, 2007

Basking in Glory

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:31 pm

April 17, 2007

  The mid-day sun was as high as it was going to get on this breezy, but pleasant, 45 degree day.  Several Painted Turtles were out claiming their piece of the solar pie and basking in its life-giving rays.  One found full exposure on the angled surface of a muskrat lodge, while another clamored onto a raft of floating cat-tail stems.
  A large female, with a smooth olive green shell, sits upon a perch provided by a pair of bent over cat-tail stalks.  Like the others, she is in a full sun-worship pose. Her yellow streaked neck is extended and her nose is pointed skyward. All four legs are spread eagled out to the four cardinal directions.  Even the toes of her hind foot are fanned out in order to expose the ample webbing connecting them.    Except for indignant glances from side to side, all of the turtles are motionless and locked into their task with a trancelike commitment. 
 Basking is serious business – a time honored way to re-charge bio batteries. Thanks in part to this solar powered behavior, Painted Turtles range farther north than any other North American turtle (although Snapping Turtles give them a run…er, a crawl for their money in that department).  These hardy reptiles have even been seen swimming under the ice in late winter.  It appears that they don’t actively feed until the water temperature gets closer to 70 degrees (indigestion, you know), but they become active as soon as the sun provides enough energy for them to do so. Just because they are cold-blooded doesn’t mean they have cold feet.
  Specific evidence of the painted turtle here in Michigan dates back to our last glaciation event. Conditions were much cooler at that time, yet they thrived none the less. A S.E. Michigan site which yielded 12,000 year old Mastodon remains also produced two Painted Turtle shell fragments. One piece was from a male and the other from a female.
  One can only imagine the scene where Adam and Eve, our lowly little turtles, are basking comfortably under the Ice Age sun.  A lumbering mastodon enters the marsh and with two well placed steps accidentally pile drives them deep into the muck.  The paleo elephant gets stuck and dies in the mire alongside his victims. 
  Twelve thousand springs later, we’re still revolving around that same sun.  The Mastodons are no longer here as a species to enjoy it, but the Painted Turtles are still soaking it all in.

April 13, 2007

Still Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:38 pm

April 13, 2007

  The frosty spring weather this year has everyone talking.  In the big scheme of things it is neither record setting or unheard of.  Such an event makes the daily news because it has an economic impact.  Commercial fruit crops, for instance, are threatened throughout the country. The Deep South was hit hard by a twenty something freeze earlier in the week and Georgia farmers watched helplessly as their dime sized peachlets withered and turned black. One Zebulon Georgia peach farmer, faced with the loss of his entire harvest, was philosophical about it when interviewed on National Public Radio. “I guess I’ll have to get a job at Walmart,” he says. “You just cain’t buck Mother Nature.”

  The ecological impact of a spring like this is minimal.  Animals and plants are incredibly unconcerned about “what is supposed to happen” – preferring the “what could happen scenario” and adapting to it. Nature is durable. The honeysuckle leaves that looked like freezer burned lettuce a few days ago are now perky green and the vanished Leopard Frogs are re-appearing to resume their serenade (although still moving very very slowly).  Mother Nature, however, can be a stern disciplinarian.  Like the tender little peachets, there are many that will not survive her moods.

  I found the small defeated body of a Purple Martin the other day.  It was the first of its kind that I saw this season, but unfortunately it was dead. As I reached down to pick it up, the iridescent purple body feathers (the mark of a male bird) glinted in the sunlight. The limp wings were long and pointed – about 14 inches from tip to tip and the deceptively tiny bill was tightly closed.  In life, this bird is the largest of our local swallows and they have a huge gaping mouth for catching insects on the fly. Like all swallows, it had tiny feet. It is a bird of the air that is nearly helpless on terra firma.

  I could feel the leading edge of his keel bone protruding out from the soft chest feathers and realized that it was starvation that brought this bird to earth. Here in my hand was a still life painted by a brutal spring. 

  My bird in hand was a scout – one of the vanguards that make their way north well ahead of the rest of the flock. Their return journey originates in Brazil and they manage to make the Gulf States by early January.  This one might have even passed over that Zebulon Georgia peach orchard on his continuing journey north.  In an average year, these hardy pioneers reach our latitude during the first half of April. In an average year, this would allow the birds to expand into new areas and explore new nest sites.  This is not an average year. 

  It is well known that the bubbly Martins are champion insect eaters.  They basically follow the hatch of flying insects on their way north and continue to snag daytime flying insects throughout their summer stay with us. There are usually plenty of insects available in early spring. The explosion of dancing midge flies this time of year can be remarkable in their abundance. I’d eat ‘em if it was legal (it’s not illegal, but…). During cold snaps, the insects secret themselves into nooks and crannies and wait it out. Purple Martins, like our scout, can’t afford to wait for them too long before starvation threatens.

  According to a Purple Martin web site which tracks the arrival of these scouts, at least one other bird was spotted near Carleton on April 6. It is feasible that was “my” bird, but many other scouts were seen around the state as well.  Some will make it, while some will not.  The rest of the flock will follow within the month.

 At least this one still Martin provided us a lesson in the “caints” of Mother Nature. He never would have fit in at Wal-Mart, anyway.

April 11, 2007

Sciurus Rex

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:34 pm

  The Fox Squirrel in my yard paused in mid stride to strike a pose. He was fleeing toward the Red Maple, but halted after a few steps. His bushy tail stretched out flat on the grass and his caramel brown body swept up in a graceful curve to the top of his perked and alert ears.  Two chestnut eyes reflected the fire of the mid-day sun as his gaze fixed upon me – the yard master.  With one front paw planted firmly in place, the other was raised and bent at the wrist like an equestrian statue. He was the Rock of Gibraltar and quivered not. 

  Here was a competent squirrel verging on the brink of nobility.  He had braved the vicious chills of February, conquered the blacktop death strips, and located nearly every walnut he buried last fall. He stood over a freshly unburied walnut and he would not yield this one to me.  No, this yard and this nut belonged to him and not the two legged hat wearer.

  The nearby squirrels began to flee for the safety of the trees as I stepped out the door. They always yielded to the tailless one. Today, however, something stopped them in their tracks.  One by one they turned whiskered heads to peer back at one of their own breaking the mold. They stopped to gaze at the defiant one that stood before me.  “This one,” they collectively thought, “would be the ONE.  Here is the CHOSEN ONE that will bring squirrelkind into the spotlight.  We shall write sonnets and tell our grandsquirrels of this glorious moment. I was there, they would tell the little ones sitting upon their bended knee, yes, I was there when Sciuris Rex rose to the level of king.  I was there as we chased the hairless beast back into his den and released the air from his killer tires.” 

  The showdown lasted for ….seconds before the CHOSEN ONE erupted into a full out panic run to the nearest tree. The others also vanished up the trunks as if blown there by a silent explosion.  A soft chilly rain started to envelop the scene and I ran to my car with fully inflated tires. 

  The CHOSEN ONE nervously perched on a high branch and watched me back down the drive.  He was only a Fox Squirrel, after all.  His temporary defiance was the product of an instinctive need to assess danger and judge the distance to the nearest safe haven. He is king of his element and much better than I at climbing, sniffing out buried acorns, gnawing away walnut shells, finding swollen spring buds to eat, and making leaf nests.  Fox Squirrels like himself are perfectly put together to do what they need to do.

  The other yard squirrels quickly forgot the incident and went on with their lives. They never brought it up to the CHOSEN ONE since doing so would reveal their own foolishness as well. They know full well that squirrels cannot write sonnets and don’t really know how to undo the cap on a tire air valve.

April 8, 2007

Let’s Go to the Hop

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:20 pm

Easter, April 8, 2007“Why are rabbits like calculators? Because they both multiply really fast.”  Ba-Doom!  “What do you call a line of rabbits backing up?  A receding Hare Line.”  Ba-Dum! “Knock knock.  Who’s There? Ammonia. Ammonia trying to be funny.” Ba-Rump!
  Thank you. Thank you very much. You’ve been a great audience. Thanks for coming to the Velvet Lounge. I’ll be appearing Saturdays and Wednesdays and disappearing anytime you pay me enough to stay away.  G’night!
 

  Since the Easter Bunny is (cover your ears, kids) the fake part of Easter, it is only fitting to come up with a few bunny jokes this morning. There’s something inherently funny about rabbits.  In the Easter tradition they have come to represent fertility, the abundance of Spring, and the abundance of extra body fat caused by eating Cadbury Eggs (which come from rabbits, if you didn’t know).  

  I spotted two Easter Bunnies cavorting about on the lawn this chilly morning.  Actually they were Cottontail Rabbits – our local wild rabbits -but, since it is Easter and they were rabbits, they were true Easter Bunnies.

  These wild bunnies were engaged in a courtship dance.  You don’t often see this kind of behavior in the light of day. Normally they perform under the cover of night and spend their days sitting tight (or laying chocolate eggs).  To better observe such a unique pair of rabbits, unique up on them to watch (unique up on tame rabbits the tame way). Unobserved, I approached within a hare’s breadth and watched the show.  

  The male, or buck as he is known, and the female (doe) face off about 3 feet from each other. The buck rushes at the doe and she leaps high into the air as he passes underneath.  He also leaps at this point and they both spin in midair – landing face to face. 

He moves in again and again they leap and spin simultaneously.  Each jump is a vertical hop clearing two feet of air space. After a few more aerial displays a brief chase ensues and they resume the dance.

  The doe approaches the buck after a few minutes and bats him with her front paws. He jumps, she jumps and on the dance goes.  This went on for about three minutes and ended in an energetic session of grass eating.  She eventually hopped off into the brush and he, determined, yet casual, did the receding hare routine.  I lost sight of them as the yard experienced hare loss. Calculator-type behavior usually ensues after such behavior, so maybe it was best that I didn’t pry anymore. The rabbit dancing season runs from February through September, so there is plenty of opportunity for you to witness this affair.

   History doesn’t record whether Ray Anthony was inspired by the Cottontail Love Dance when he wrote the “Bunny Hop” in 1953.  He penned the words “Put your right foot forward – put your left foot out -Do the Bunny Hop -Hop, hop, hop.” and created a dance sensation.  He went on to write “Dance this new creation – it’s the new sensation,” but in this he was mistaken.  The Bunny Hop is an ancient tradition among the long-eared clan.  It flared in popularity among humans but soon went on down the bunny trail. The flip side of the “Bunny Hop” single was a little thing called the “Hokey-Pokey,” by the way. Now, that’s what it’s all about.

  Oh, in case you didn’t get the connection between the third joke of the initial stand-up routine and bunnies, that’s the final verse of Anthony’s “Bunny Hop.”

Nome de Plume

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:10 am

April 7, 2007

 Great Egrets, those large white fish eating birds that inhabit our local marshes, have been called many things.  Many folks commonly call them “Cranes,” but that doesn’t make it right.  Cranes are a completely different kind of bird.  Others call them “Herons,” but that too is mostly wrong.  Our local Herons come in Great Blue, Green, Night and other assorted varieties, but are not Egrets.  Granted, it’s close, because Egrets are in the Heron family but calling them herons is like calling a Raccoon a Weasel or a Pepsi a….Coke or something.

  To further confuse things, the name “Egret” comes from the Old French “aigrette” which translates out to “heron.”  But, what do the French know, eh?  They are Europeans after all, and Europeans call the “Moose” an “Elk”, and say that an “Elk” is really a “Red Deer.”  O.K., so we Americans call our robins “robins” even though there was a European bird of that name long before our American bird was given its Nome de plume.  Technically we call our version an “American Robin,” so, you see, there really is no confusion on our part.

  The reason I’m delving into this somewhat un-necessary diatribe is to bring up the name “Angel Bird.”  This is another name by which the Great Egret is known and one which I, up until this morning, little understood. Now I get it.

  Vicious westerly winds and driving snow had forced a gang of Egrets to shelter up against lee side of a thick stand of brown cat-tails.  They huddled together with their long necks pulled down between hunched shoulders.  They were standing ankle deep in the shallow water while waiting the storm out. One befuddled bird briefly attempted to walk over the nearby ice surface, but looked unnatural and ungainly – not a usual egret trait.

  All of these birds were in breeding condition, with beautiful powder green skin in front of each eye and a magnificent cape of long delicate plumes across their back.  The cascade of plumes plummeted over the tail and gently touched the water surface.  This gave the seven birds the appearance of, well, angels in gossamer robes.  Angel Birds!

  These splendid plumes, which originate at the shoulder, are several feet long. Each bird is possessed of 50 or so and they grow them exclusively for the breeding season (which will begin as soon as this insane winter blast ends). The plumes are employed during a courtship ritual that includes a “fan dance” where the array is raised up like a turkey’s tail. After the brief mating time is over, they drop off and quickly disintegrate. Nuptial plumes, as they are called, are as temporary as the petals of a trout lily or a politician’s promise.  They are also a stark reminder of just how close the Great Egret came to extinction.

  A hundred years ago, the egrets themselves were in danger of disintegrating as a species because of those nuptial plumes.  Market hunters hammered the birds to reap the plumes for the use in the hat market.  It was in the early 1900’s style to adorn ladies hats with all kinds of bird parts (including whole stuffed birds) and the Egret plumes were on the top of the list.  The nuptial plumes were marketed as “aigrettes.”  At one point, the feathers commanded an astronomical price of $512.00 per pound.  It took 70 or so birds to yield that much product, so Egrets were being slaughtered into oblivion.

  Fortunately this trade was ended with protective legislation and the dedicated efforts of the National Audubon Society – who now use the bird as their symbol.

  The sullen group of seven before me may not appreciate the fact that their kind was plucked from the brink only to freeze to death in a freak spring freeze.  They will, however, survive.  Like angels rising out of the ashes of time, the Angel bird has become a Phoenix as well.

 

April 5, 2007

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Sturgeon Sings

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:30 pm

April 4, 2007

  In the pre-dawn darkness, Jim Boase and his assistant get the “Serindipity” ready for launching into the Detroit River. The initial rays of the rising sun illuminated the scene as the men transferred equipment to the 35 ft. aluminum vessel from their truck. There were several crates of supplies, a barrel rimmed with large hooks, a huge net, and several coolers.  Two 100 horsepower Johnsons, an impressive lifting crane, and dramatically sweeping sides sets their boat apart from the others there at the municipal ramp. It promised to be a pleasant April day with temperatures already in the 40’s.

  Bleary eyed Walleye fishermen sipped coffee and watched the procedure while anxiously waiting their turn on the ramp.  Just north of the launch site, a dozen of their brethren were already clustered over a hot spot out on the gray waters, and no doubt were catching their limit.  

  It became apparent that the “Serendipity” crew didn’t represent one of the “locals” as they donned day glow orange survival suits with large white “U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service” letters on the back. This fishing trip was part of a research project to monitor the Sturgeon and Walleye populations of the Detroit River.  They just started last week and will continue their work throughout the April/May spawning season.

 Michigan DNR Fisheries biologist Jeff Braunscheidel was along for the ride as well. Jeff was there to check out a few locations on the river to place monitoring nets.  The DNR wants to assess fish mortality from the upcoming walleye tournaments.  Me? Well, I was there as a volunteer crew member to assist them as best I could.  Actually, I have to admit, I was there primarily to see a live Detroit River sturgeon and jumped at the chance to be with the crew.  Fortunately, they had an extra day-glow survival suit for me so I could both act and look the part of researcher while fulfilling my selfish desire.

  As we headed out, the roar of the twin engines lifted the bow and sent the craft flying downstream. Jim explained the situation to me as best he could – overcoming the noise and my continual exclamations of “What?”  First, we would be visiting four gillnet sets for walleye.  Later we’d be checking out the set lines for sturgeon.  They hauled in 27 of the giant fish last week and were expecting more of the same today. That news lifted my expectations even further.

  The location of the first gill net set-up was marked with a set of bright orange buoys topped off with a flag.   The vessel pulled along side the buoy, Jim snagged the line with a boat hook, and brought it over the rail.  Seconds later a large “v” shaped Sebawing anchor swung into view and was carefully hauled out and hooked onto the gunwale by Jeff.  Soon after, Jim and I grabbed hold of the net and started to haul the 125 foot length out onto the deck. 

  After a dozen feet of empty mesh was pulled, one walleye appeared out of the depths – ensnared in its tangles.  Jeff started to pull the fish out, when another appeared, then another.  Pretty soon, it appeared that every square inch was full of fat walleyes and the burden of fish became heavy. 

  I dropped the line and assisted Jeff with fish removal.  After the entire net length was on the deck, all hands were busy extricating the catch. This wasn’t an easy task. Gill nets consist of fine threads that wrap the body and catch in the gill flaps, upper jaw and behind fins.  Each panel of the net had a different sized weave in order to sample different size fish, although a good number were trapped in the 2 ½ inch mesh.

  Since the goal was to keep the fish and not release them, we didn’t need to rush things.  After what seemed like an eternity, I proudly pulled one 18 incher free and tossed it into a five gallon bucket. The other guys had already filled the bucket by that time, so I accelerated the pace. 

  Overall there were probably 35 fish in that haul. Not a one of them was small and all of them were fertile males in spawning condition – very fertile (spilling out with fertility, if you get my drift, so that we and the deck were a slimy mess.)

  We pulled out several hooks, a crayfish, countless algae clumps, and untangled knots before easing the net back into the river. Jim threw the anchor back as the line tightened.  I admired the catch as the buoy was plunked back into position.  Walleye are impressive fish with sizable teeth, a pale “walled” eye, greenish speckled body and a distinctive tail fin with the lower lobe tipped in white.  Jim explained that they would be later be measured, weighted, and aged to provide valuable data on the health of the walleye population. 

  This procedure was repeated at three other locations on the river, although the results were not as dramatic as the first haul.  I think we took in 50 some fish, but no one was counting – there would be plenty of time for that back in the lab.  At least one 6 pound female walleye (a “hen” as they called it) was taken, along with a handful of stunningly yellow Perch, and a Silver Lamprey attached to one of the Walleyes. The lamprey released its suction grip on its quarry upon clearing the gunwale and slithered over the deck seeking refuge among the buckets.  I kept the native parasite as a specimen for later examination in my lab.  The truly interesting specimens, however, were due up next. As we entered the sturgeon grounds around Fighting Island, anticipation filled the air.

  The anchor and buoy set-up was similar to that on the gill nets, but the rig consisted of a single trot line with large baited hooks set at about ten foot intervals.  The 24 hooks, alternating between 2 inches and 1 ½ inch in length, were attached to short lines snapped onto the line.  The line lay close to the bottom where the fish habitually fed.

  I was to discover that the bait consisted of Round Gobies and chunks of salted fish. It was my job to re-bait the hooks as they were un-snapped and handed to me.  The first hook, a large one, got a goby attached. The next hook was to be a small one and also received a goby.  The next large hook got a chunk of cut bait and the next one after that was a little one baited with cut bait.  This alternating pattern insured a wide variety of size and bait options to entice the sturgeon.

  One by one the hooks cleared the water and Jim announced “small hook, empty….large hook, empty….small hook, empty…”  I kept up the baiting process and carefully spaced the finished sets around the rim of a large blue barrel.

  “Small hook, empty….large hook, empty….small hook, empty…,” was the repeated call from Jim.  It looked like the first line would be completely devoid of a catch until the call came out: “Large hook, mudpuppy.”  The indignant amphibian wiggled about wildly upon the entering the sky world.  Several more mudpuppies, or waterdogs as they are known, were hauled in, but no sturgeon.  “We’ll do better on the next one,” Jim apologized as if it were his fault. The freshly (albeit poorly baited) hooks were snapped back into place and the set was eased back into the deep as the boat was expertly backed up. 

   The next set yielded more empty hooks and frustrated mudpuppies, so it was with more than a little apprehension that we approached the third – and last set.  The third one proved to be a charm. Just as soon as Jim tugged on the rope, he could tell there was something there.  “We’ve got one, “he crowed and commenced pulling line.  After ten or so empty hooks, the eleventh cleared the surface with a magnificent sturgeon attached.

  Jeff scrambled for the net as Jim’s partner put the boat in idle. All leaned over the left side of the boat to gather the fish in.  Quickly sliding a chunk of cut bait onto a hook (I was getting pretty good at this by now), I stood up to admire the catch.

  Spilling out onto the deck, a pale brown monster laid passively on the deck.  Its long upturned nose, large sucking mouth, smooth leathery skin, and five rows of bony plates gave it a distinctively primitive appearance – earned after a lengthy occupation of the earth predating the dinosaurs.  The tail is also upturned and shark like. This type of tail is termed “hetertocercal,” but “fascinating” is a more suitable term.

 The men gently lifted the fish and cradled it into a dip net propped across the gunwales. Time was of the essence. The necessary data had to be gathered quickly so the sturgeon could be returned to his lair with minimal stress.

  One by one, the measurements were taken and called out as Jim recorded the information.  “Total length – 1232 mm” (about 4 feet), “Fork length 1097 mm” (that’s the measurement from tip of nose to the inside of the fork in the tail), “Commercial Length, 694 mm” (2.2 feet – the measure from the back of the gill plate to the back of the dorsal – or tip – fin). “Girth, 432 mm” (17”).  Hooking the net to a large scale, the men lifted the creature up, studied the scale and called out “Weight, 9.3 kg.” and lowered it gently down.  This sturgeon was small by sturgeon standards, being only 20 ½ pounds. Some members of its kind tip the scale at nearly 300 lbs and reach lengths of over7 feet.

  A heavy fin ray was clipped off the left front “pectoral fin” (the one right behind the gills) and placed into a bag.  This would be used to age the fish and run genetic analysis.  The growth rings in the ray cartilage are a record of growth years – it seems that sturgeon can’t lie about their age.  The big ones are known to have survived over 150 years.  This one was probably closer to 25 years in age, but only her hair dresser knows for sure! Actually, the question of whether it was a “he” or “she” couldn’t be immediately determined, so I secretly dubbed it Pat – just to be safe.

  The last two procedures before release were the insertion of an external orange Floy tag at the base of the dorsal fin, and a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag injected just under the skin.  The PIT tag emitted a unique frequency that would track the fish through out the rest of its long life.  The guys passed the receiver over the inserted tag to see if it was working properly, and gingerly lowered the fish back into the water.

  Entering back into its element, the giant drifted for a short while before kicking back into action and diving into the depths. It was now on the record books as an individual that could be tracked and monitored.  Once nearly fished to extinction and victimized by pollution, the gentle giants are staging a comeback. By following “Pat’s” future life in the Detroit River, scientists can learn more about what makes the Great Lakes Sturgeon tick and help it on its road to recovery. 

  The rest of the line was empty, by the way, and we had to be satisfied with just one sturgeon for the day.  As we returned back to the dock in the glare of the mid-day sun, I felt satisfied.  Jim and his crew mate will return tomorrow to repeat the routine of today.  It is apparent that this is far from “routine” for them.  I now know at least one sturgeon that lurks beneath these waters, while they will know dozens by the time the season ends.   

  It is comforting for us to know that there is at least one magnificent being out there that very likely will outlive us all.

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