Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 29, 2007

A Memorial Day Picnic

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:21 pm

  I drove around a bit on Memorial Day and took in a few of the sights. Folks were busy planting flowers, walking their dogs, unfurling flags, and firing up their grills. The fields were exploding with yellow Salsify and the Locust trees were laden with dangling white flower clusters. It was a grand day for a picnic and a feast for the naturalist’s eye.

  Atop a slight rise close to I-23, I spied a few picnickers assembled in a field for a Memorial Day feast.  They were only slightly taken aback when I stopped along the roadside to observe them.  A few unsure glances indicated that my presence was known, but the party was otherwise unfazed. The meal was wrapping up and it was time to sit about and soak up the mid-day sun. There were plenty of leftovers for a nosy stranger, but I chose not to approach any closer.  It appeared that venison was on the menu – dried venison with the hair still attached.  A garnish of putrid liver and a rope of leathery intestine completed the cuisine du jour.  

  These picnickers happened to be Turkey Vultures. They were feeding on an old road-killed deer carcass (see my sketch here). Actually, the deer in question was probably a road “injured” animal that survived long enough to walk up the rise from the road before collapsing. There wasn’t much left at this point, but one can never get all the meat off a good chunk of barbeque. As nature’s sanitation specialists, these birds were doing what they do best.

  Turkey Vultures are one of the largest birds in our area.  With their large dark bodies and naked red heads, they look very much like turkeys when hastily viewed on the ground – thus the name. In the air, however, their six foot wingspan and incredible soaring abilities put them in a class all by themselves. There are so many fascinating features of  this bird that I’ll need to leave that discussion for another time (take a look at this website dedicated to them).  A bird that has perfected the art of projectile vomiting and pees on its own legs certainly has my attention, but I am left considering a bigger question.

  Vultures are now a very common Michigan bird, but such wasn’t always the case. There is strong evidence that these birds have spread their range into our state only within the last century or so. Should there ever be a movie made about them, I can see that movie announcer guy narrating the trailer with “In a world where animal populations are in decline, one big black bird is on the rise and they’re coming after you.”

  You see, vultures are literally coming after us. Where ever we clear forests, build roads, and create farms they come after us. Farms produce dead livestock, roads create an endless supply of carrion and cleared forests have created a habitat for an endless supply of deer which in turn contribute to the endless supply of carrion.

  It is even possible that some that the northward expansion of these native southerners started back in the mid 1800’s.  During the Civil War, large Union army camps provided a trail of dead horses, slaughtered farm animals and other vulture-tempting waste leading north. Since 1850 and the end of the “Little Ice Age,” warming temperatures may have contributed to this expansion by creating a more suitable breeding clime here in the north.

  In Walter Barrows Michigan Bird Life (published in 1912), the Turkey Vulture was established, but restricted to, the lower two tiers of counties.  It was a regular summer breeding bird by then.  According to Barrows, “Jerome Trombley states that a pair nests regularly in a hollow sycamore tree near the River Raisin at Petersburg, Monroe County, and others pairs have nested in that vicinity.”  My picnicking quartet wasn’t located too far from Petersburg and may, in fact, be related to Mr. Trombly’s birds (or at least cousins twice removed).

  Today, this vulture is found throughout the Lower Peninsula and is a regular in the Upper Peninsula as well. It’s been a century of progress fueled by our ability to hit small animals and fixate deer in our headlights.

   Turkey Vultures still need to retreat south during the winter and get their fix of roadside armadillos.  It should be no surprise to find out that they now tend to follow our major roadways while journeying south. 

    A century and a half ago, my four picnicking buzzards (another common name) would have been an unusual site.  The vulture was not a common resident when Michigan became a state, and it is entirely possible that it may once again become uncommon within the next century and a half.  Now, that’s carrion for thought.

May 27, 2007

June Bug Possums

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:12 pm

  I would not suggest keeping a June Bug as a pet. They play with your mind and evoke feelings of guilt. Even if your intentions were harmless –such as temporary confinement for observation purposes – the result is disappointment, boredom, and a sense of uneasiness.  

  Knowing this, I suffered a memory lapse the other day, and picked up a June Bug (actually a beetle, not a bug) that was bumbling his way across my driveway. It was newly emerged from the ground so every feature was brand new. The hard wing covers (elytra) were as polished as a freshly waxed Jaguar (the car, not the animal). Actually June Bugs look more like SUV’s in profile, but there was something sporty about this one.  I wanted to examine him more closely, so I imprisoned him in a Mason jar and set it aside for later.

  That night I peered into the jar and found my charge lying on his back with all six legs pointing up into the air. It did not respond to a tap on the glass. He rolled around stiffly as I tilted the jar and it dropped into my open palm with all the signs of full rigormortus. An hour in a jar should not be enough to kill anything, but the facts appeared clear enough. I was responsible for silencing a new born life.

  It was possible that this one had a deep psychological fear of Mason jars and couldn’t handle the situation. Or, maybe the reality of a June bug coming out in May was a bit too much to handle.

  Then one of the legs twitched.

  Perhaps it only stunned itself against the glass while flying around, or something. It slowly revived into full life and I gently returned it to the jar. This time I added an assortment of leaf food to tide him over.  The next morning, it was “dead” again.

  There in my palm, I was able to assess his hairy little chest (the thorax is finely covered with a hair-like coating), and the powerful pair of front digging legs. The latter feature is common to all members of the Scarabaeid family, by the way. There are over 5,000 species of Scarab Beetles in the world (1,300 in North America) and all have the robust “forearms” equipped with formidable prongs. My charge is a species called a Brown June Beetle – an upside-down and silent Brown June Beetle.

  The Sacred Scarab of Egypt is probably the best known of the bunch. The familiar form of this scarab is found throughout Egyptian iconography as a representation of Khepri – the god of the rising sun. According to legend, Nut – the goddess of the sky – swallows the sun every night and gives birth to a new sun (that’s “sun” not “son”) every morning. The new sun is rolled over the horizon by Khepri (you don’t have to take my word for it). In real life, the Sacred Scarab is a dung rolling beetle that pushes around little balls of camel poo.  This poo ball behavior reminded the Egyptians of Khepri’s dawn duty and thus the godly designation.

  Thanks to this mythic connection, scarabs have also taken on the symbolism of renewal and re-birth over the years. The fact that they magically emerge from the ground, after spending several years as a fleshy white grub, added to this resurrection quality.

  True to this prophecy, my “dead” scarab twitched back to life after a little prodding.  Perhaps it actually resurrected itself? It was a bit strange that this was happening just as the great golden poo ball was rising in the eastern sky.

  All of this was a bit unnerving, but things were coming back to me now.  In my experience, captive June Beetles play possum all the time! I’ve tried to use them for my school group presentations, but they don’t show well. An apparently dead beetle rattling around inside a jar doesn’t elicit a whole lot of wonder.  They won’t resurrect until grabbed and squeezed into action. Obviously this is not an animal with pet qualities (although it can do one trick really well).

  After four days of such pseudo-death performances, things were getting quite boring. It was time to let him go. Poured out onto my hand, it maintained the death pose. This time I grabbed him firmly between my thumb and forefinger and looked him straight in the eye. “I know you’re not dead,” I said.  “You’ve driven your point home and you are now free to go.” For a brief moment I contemplated testing out a report that June Bugs taste like “crudley made cane syrup” when cooked, but passed on the idea.

  In response to my statement, the beetle wiggled to life and issued a bubble of brown spittle from its mouth. June Beetles can apparently blow raspberries. I placed him on the ground and he plodded away at the same pace as when I found him. 


May 25, 2007

Road Map Turtle

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:19 pm

  The lowly Map Turtle is rarely on anybody’s turtle list. It seems that Painted Turtles and “Snappers” get all the attention.  I’m not sure why that is, because Map Turtles are very common (especially along Lake Erie), get really big (a foot or more in shell length) and have a lot to offer the curious eye.  

  I’d like you to take a look at a photo of one of these turtles here and then come back for closer look.  The “roadmap” appearance of the shell and body ornamentation along with the “keeled” shell ridge are two distinctive traits of this species. You’ll also see that the head is boldly patterned with two yellow eye-spots behind the real eyes and that the mouth is equipped with a powerful beak. Now, let’s take look at two unappreciated features.

   I spotted one of these well-named turtles contemplating a road crossing the other day. Fearing that his endeavor would surely end in disaster, I turned my car around and picked him up.  It was a handsome, and testy, little male with a 4.5 inch long shell.  He greeted my act of kindness with an open mouth and a willingness to remove a piece of my flesh. The males of the species have relatively small heads, but their bite is sufficient to crush snails – their primary diet. The gals, on the other hand, have massive heads with broad jaws that can crack open clam shells, so the female bite requires more respect. 

  I was struck by the marvelously adapted hind feet and plump slug-like tail of my little road kill inclined reptile. I drew a few of these features for you to look at because these are the kind of things that don’t show up in photographs.  It’s understandable that nature photos don’t normally depict the south end of northbound turtles, but regrettable. 

  The paddle-like hind feet evoke images of a sea turtle or seal flipper (look here and here). The individual toes are lost in the overall aquatic propulsion design and the webbing has taken over. What we have here is essentially a fin and thus the reason that Map Turtles are swimmers par excellence. When these turtles come out onto logs to bask in the sun, they often take on a spread eagle pose and stick these feet out as far as they will go. Like tree leaves, the paddle feet absorb much needed heat from the sun.

  Not quite as remarkable, but noteworthy, is the long fat tail that identifies my turtle as a male (take a look).  It looks like a plump green and yellow slug peeking out from under the jagged rear border of the shell. Over 20% of the overall body length is accounted for by this brightly striped appendage. This is one of nature’s great tails.

  For the sake of science, I should remind you that the male’s long tail is thing of necessity.  The anal opening is located near the tip so that it can be extended around the shell of the much larger female during mating

 Appreciation of nature often stems from attention to de-tails such as these and leads to the de- feet of ignorance

May 23, 2007

Bony Bony Scale Fish

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:32 pm

  Few living fish are as ancient in origin as the Long nose Gar.  They are “living fossils” who have changed little during their occupation of earth. They’ve shared the planet with the first great lumbering amphibians, survived the domination of the dinosaurs and tolerated the reign of giant Ice Age beasts. Mountains rise and fall, continents drift, and climates alter, but the garfish resist all change. They remain as a subtle constant in the earth’s tumultuous history.

  When in the presence of such sage veterans, we humans are wise to acknowledge that we are the new kids on the block. The fact that gars are universally considered as “trash fish” and hard headed fish destroyers by human fishermen smacks of jealousy. Faced as we are with the prospect of earthly climate change, perhaps we can’t shake the nagging thought that they will survive our reign as well.

  Such overly wrought thinking was a by product of my encounter with a group of Long nose Gar today. Cruising slowly past me in the shallow backwaters of a Lake Erie marsh, a large female was accompanied by three males. To say she was “accompanied” is really an understatement.  The males were all but stuck on her and mirrored her every move with exact precision. One male was actually postioned ahead of her, but kept pace with every gee and haw.

  Although small by gar standards (they can get up to 6 feet in length), this female was about 30 inches from beak to tail. The males were slightly smaller. She passed my observation point and led her contingent through the maze of cat-tail stalks. Their passage was clearly marked above the water by the twitching of the fresh green leaves as they bumped the stems along the way. After a few minutes, the group retraced their route and passed me again. As if on cue, they all rose to the surface like a pod of whales and gulped mouthfuls of air before sliding below. Their pace was slow and deliberate – exhibiting the patience that is the hall mark of gar existence.

  The males are waiting for the moment when she lays her eggs. She will soon hover over a bed of water plants and let loose with a hail of sticky eggs (which are poisonous, by the way) and the males will fertilize them as they emerge into the watery space beneath her. It is a gar tradition for the female to lead the group around for a while before all this occurs. I had neither the patience nor the time to see the actual egg laying, but I did appreciate the brief display.

  There are two species of Gar in our neck of the woods, the Long nose and the Spotted. Both are spotted and both have relatively long noses, but the Longnose exceeds its cousin in overall size and beak length. This fish (a.k.a. needle nose gar) has an extremely narrow snout armed with dozens of needlelike teeth.  They are ambush predators that grab small fish with a lightning fast side swipe.

  True to their “Patience is next to Godliness” motto, they spend their hunting time in suspended animation.  The prey comes to them. By the time the potential prey realize that the floating log is not a floating log, they are no longer “potentials”.

  I’ll not go into the details of Long nose Gar biology, but there are two things worth knowing about gars in general. First of all, they are covered with a solid interlocked suit of body armor made up of Ganoid Scales. These scales are structurally similar to teeth and are solid and bony. The scientific name for the Long nose variety is Lepisosteus osseus which literally means Bony Bony Scale Fish.  The Swiss biologist Linnaeus named this beast, so I guess he felt the need to drive home home the point point that this gar gar was especially especially bony.  Recalling the air gulping behavior of today’s gar gang, the second gar fact of merit is their ability to breathe air.

  Gars thrive in warm muddy waters (and cesspools) because they can live off of atmospheric air if necessary. They use their gills to derive oxygen from the water most of the time, but when warm water conditions create a low oxygen situation, gar will gulp air.  A specialized air bladder, directly connected to the mouth cavity, can function like a lung. This is pretty incredible stuff for a fish.

  I realize that I’ve probably just introduced yet another excuse for gar envy with this last garfact. Those gar haters out there can now claim that these relicts are invading “our” air breathing world. I ask you to take comfort in the fact that we are the invaders, not they. They are sharing their air with us.

May 21, 2007

Space Slugs

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:27 am

An item from a “cryptozoology” site caught my attention recently. The report begins, and I quote: “In September 2000 an object resembling a claw was found by a family in a bedroom of their California home. The family reported that they were in the midst of an intense series of visitations by purported extraterrestrials.” The “claw,” complete with a strand of hair attached, was found stuck to a towel and it was presented as evidence that the alien invaders were mammalian in nature.

   There were doubts about the actual nature of this claw (really?!), according to the report. Several experts examined it and one identified it as originating from some sort of New World Monkey. This revelation introduced a blood-chilling aspect into the investigation. Perhaps a group of South American Spider Monkeys have secretly developed space flight technology and were using this suburban California bedroom as their planning center? Maybe they were sharing their research with the “purported aliens” and providing them with Earth attack plans.  Fortunately, one bumbling simian accidentally left his claw stuck to a towel and unwittingly provided scientists with the opportunity to unravel this twisted plot.

  A very thorough DNA analysis of the “claw” came up with a less than satisfactory answer. “There is little doubt,” reported by the researchers, “that the sample found embedded in the towel….is a dried up mollusk.” In other words, it was just a shriveled up slug. 

  Now, Star Wars fans have long known of the existence of Space Slugs. They reside in the Asteroid Belt surrounding the ice plant of Hoth.  They eat silicon based life such as Mynocks and the occasional Millennium Falcon that enters into its cave-like mouth. The encrusted little California bedroom slug was far too small to be such an alien space creature, even though the Silicon Valley would be a logical place for colonization.

  No, this was just a dried up native slug from the outer space just beyond the doorstep. The towel slug in question ran out of moisture and dried up – a towel is the last place to be if you are a mucus covered water bag. The hair was probably a dog hair that adhered to the sticky critter as it ground to a halt.

  I will grant that slugs are a very alien type of creature upon close examination. I found two of them recently (not in our bedroom) and observed them for a few days. There are many species, some of which have attained the status of garden pests, but my charges were small (under 2 inch) natives. One was a veritable racing slug, while the other did absolutely nothing for two days.

  Slugs are essentially naked snails. As mollusks, they are in the same group as the snails, but their shell is reduced down to a flattened oval underneath the skin. This portion is visible as a mantle – located behind the head.  There is a single hole, called the pneumostome, on the lower right side of the mantle which functions as the breathing pore.  Slugs have a mouth, but do not breathe through it.  They feed on plant material by licking the surface with a very rough tongue (radula) located in the mouth.

  Right next to the breathing pore, but downwind of it, is the anus (if that’s not an alien feature, what is). Ahead of the pore are, shall we say, the “delicate parts” for reproduction. This clan is hermaphroditic and are all “Him-Hers,” “Dadmoms,” or “Their own best dates,” but they actually need another slug in order to exchange fluids and make little slugs. 

  There are four tentacles located on the head: the two short ones are for smelling and tasting, and the two upper ones are for seeing and smelling. The “smelleyes” are located at the very tip of long upper tentacles. My racing slug (named BillJill) provided me with a small bit of entertainment by demonstrating how its eye stalks retract inward upon contact.

  All alien creatures are required to have a slime coating, and our earthbound slugs excel in this category. Their skin glands exude several different kinds of mucus. Glands in the foot create a watery mucus for crawling (on every surface except towels and frying pans). A thick sticky mucus can be generated for protection and mating needs (on which I will not elaborate).  

  Specifically, slugs and snails are classified as Gastropods. This name literally means “Stomach Foot.” They say an army marches on its stomach, so it would befit a potential alien army to be made up of slugs.  There are plenty of other alien type traits to be found in this group of creatures, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. 

 You can begin your discovery venture by looking under rocks and other daytime hiding places. Since slugs are active during the moist nighttime hours, they need to seek shelter before the desiccating rays of the sun break the horizon. Their slime trails are a regular early morning feature on our sidewalks. Yesterday afternoon, I found what looked like the claw of a New World Monkey at the end of a slime trail, but closer examination proved it to be a dried up mollusk.

May 20, 2007

Big League Farm Clubs

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:02 am

Part II: The Great Blue Herons

 Like the Eagles, the Great Blue Herons are also major players in the Michigan Big Bird league. The Herons have training facilities throughout the state and run one of the most successful farm systems in the country. My journey took me to Kensington Metropark near Milford to see the rookery there.

  The herons took up nesting residence in the Metropark on Kent Lake Island about a decade ago. The proximity of the colony to the boardwalk presents an unparalleled viewing opportunity and, because they return to the location every spring, the opportunity is repeated annually.  A short walk on the boardwalk leading from the nature center parking lot leads you directly to the spot.

  In short, the story begins in early April when the old nests are spruced up and the courtship ritual is honored. The birds get down to the business of laying 4-7 large olive green eggs which are incubated by the females at night-time and by the males during the daylight hours. The young hatch out in early May after a 25-29 day incubation period.                      Both parents participate in the feeding process in order to turn the ugliest chicks on earth into the ugliest fledglings on earth.  Servings of fish, frogs, snakes and fish – along with some more fish – are unceremoniously regurgitated to the eager brood.  The sushi primed young take their first test flight some 60 days after hatching and fly the coop soon after. The short story doesn’t do the thing justice, however.

  As I approached the colony yesterday morning, the continual “Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka” of the young herons (heronlets?) filled the air. It was a constant repetitious background sound that sound-tracked the scene from first approach to departure. Scattered across the highest branches of the newly leafed oaks, were approximately 13-14 huge stick nests. Each of these white-washed stick platforms sported uncomfortable little family groups consisting of a single adult and several chicks. 

  The posturing of the adult birds rendered a slightly surrealistic feel to the visual panorama. The highest one of the bunch was statuesque against the blue sky.  Her head and beak were tucked deeply into the fold at the angle behind the long neck. A pair of long black plumes coming off her head pointed straight up and waved in the breeze like two blades of grass. Another pointed his head straight up into the air and lowered his open wings into a classic yoga pose. The rest stood in patient repose while the young tussled about them.

  The young birds were about three-quarters grown and are streaky brown with ridiculous black mop tops. Many of the nests contained at least four heronlets (one had five young) and they are barely contained within the confines of their platforms. Like most families, all of the young were in a constant state of disagreement with their nearest siblings. Armed with formidable sword-like beaks, they sparred with each other and attempted to carve out space for their gawky legs.  One pair had locked beaks and engaged in a push and pull battle of wills.  The contest ended in a standoff and a bought of loud croaking.

  While fixated by the scene before me, I was nearly bowled over by a low approaching adult Heron that just cleared the boardwalk from behind me. I felt the rush of her 6 foot wingspan and was briefly encased by her substantial shadow. She proceeded to gain altitude with slow measured wing beats and soared into one of the nests.  Her motley crew welcomed her arrival with a rapid series of “ka” calls and grabbed at her beak, but she had nothing to offer them.

  As that last female returned (actually I don’t know if it was a female or not, I’m just trying to give equal time here) I caught a glimpse of white from the nest behind her.  This turned out to be an Egret sitting tightly on its eggs. Egrets usually nest within Heron rookeries and this colony is normally host to several pairs. These birds have a slightly shorter incubation and fledgling time than the gray and brown crowd around her, so I suspect it got off to a late start.

  Just in case you can’t make it out this year, there are several photographers that have posted pictures of this particular rookery on the web (such as these from Jay Levin). Colonies do come and go, however, so I’d suggest stopping by to take a look while you can. This colony should survive as long as the trees hold out. The tons of “toxic feces” raining down on the undergrowth will kill most of the plant life over time, but this is a relatively small rookery.  

  Seeing these magnificent birds eject streams of whitewash every few minutes reminds me of watching baseball players perform their habitual spitting rituals (from opposite ends of their respective bodies, of course).  This is life in the bush leagues.


May 18, 2007

Big League Farm Clubs

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:50 pm

Part I : The Eagles

  Several years ago I had the opportunity to bear witness to a miraculous event. A pair of Bald Eagles had successfully produced the first chick born in Wayne County in nearly a century (the site is extremely close to the Monroe County boundary). That nest was located on the property of Lake Erie Metropark on the north bank of the Huron River at Lake Erie.  This Centennial Eaglet, dubbed “Jennifer,” was tolerant, but not too happy about her introduction to the human world.

  A team, led by Biologist Dave Best of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ventured into the Cottonwood lot to document the bird. I was there to assist, but didn’t do much but gawk. A climber deftly scaled the tall tree to the brim of the nest some 50 feet up and plucked the young bird out. The eaglet was placed in a backpack and carefully lowered down to the ground via a rope.

  Jenny took all of this with a quiet, but defiant look in her eyes. She was probably 50 days old at the time, so her body size was close to adult. Her massive talons were well proportioned and ready to inflict injury, so these were tightly held by her captors. Most of the downy feathers were gone at this stage and she was clad in the chocolate brown feathers of a first year bird.

 Once brought to ground, she was quickly fitted with a colored band on one leg and an aluminum band on the other. After a blood sample was taken and a few pictures snapped, Jennifer was raised back into her nest. During all this activity, the attending adult bird didn’t attempt to attack the climber, as is typical with this species.  It simply circled nervously overhead and twittered. Should Bald Eagles ever get into their minds to attack, the whole banding scene would change dramatically. Suffice it to say, however, that the climber wore a hard hat just in case.

  Over the intervening years, this same Huron River pair has produced a number of young.  The local eagle population, as a matter of fact, has performed admirably to nurture the next generation of eaglets.  There are about a dozen nests within the immediate area of Monroe & Wayne County and the near Canadian shore. Eagles are now a regular sight at all seasons.

  This year I wasn’t able to accompany the team to the Huron River nest. The original nest was blown down a few years ago, but the pair re-built in the same woodlot. An initial flyover conducted by the Michigan DNR, indicated the possibility of two young, but were unsure. On Wednesday, May 16, Dave and his crew returned to the nest to assess the situation from the ground. “We got one big black bird (at this stage of growth, the eaglet is termed a “black juvenile” because is has lost the fluffy gray down feathers and is covered with dark feathers), she was very healthy and about 54 days old,” according to Mr. Best. “She was a little big, so there was a bit of a struggle, but it was banded, samples were taken and it was put back. Things went well.” 

  The banding crew has been very busy lately as they try to reach as many regional eagle nests as possible before the young leave the nest.  Thanks to the success of the Bald Eagle farm clubs, like our Huron River pair, future players for the national league are guaranteed.

May 16, 2007

Flight Club

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:49 pm

  Outlined in the rays of the low angled sun of dawn or dusk, they gather to fly, sing, dance, find love and die. These crepuscular partygoers are known as midge flies and they gather into compact mating swarms this time of year. Chances are you’ve accidentally blundered into one of these swarms and found yourself waving your hands in desperate arcs to rid yourself of this pestilence. Equally as likely, a few may have found their way into your mouth and you weren’t open to trying new protein sources. Either way, the experience was momentary.

  As proof that even the humblest of God’s creatures are worthy of a second glance, I invite you to ponder these midges for a bit longer next time. Spit ‘em out and stop to take a closer look.

  There are some 2,000 kinds of midges. They are actually tiny members of the Fly clan (Diptera) – a diverse group of insects which include house flies, deer flies and even mosquitoes.  Unlike the aforementioned, however, our local midges do not bite humans.  In fact, they don’t bother to feed- period- once they come out into “our” world. 

  They do all their eating as aquatic larvae. Living within slime tubes pasted onto the surface of rocks and water plants, they feed on tiny bits of plant material that drift by.  While in this stage, they are food to fish, dragonfly larvae, crayfish, and just about everything else. After this brief period of supporting the aquatic food pyramid, they emerge to become flying adults. As denizens of the air, the predatory onslaught continues from aerial predators. It’s tough being the perpetual cuisine du jour, so who can blame them for abandoning all thoughts other than love once given the chance.

  Today I pondered a bunch of these dancing love flies.  There was a big hatch on the River Raisin this afternoon. Swallows of all description were swooping about and feasting on newly emerging adult midges. Barn, Cliff, Rough-winged, and Bank Swallows were coursing up and down the river – just above the water surface – in an ecstasy of consumption.  Having already eaten, I just stood on the bank and watched a small cluster of flying midges.

  Midge swarms can contain millions of individuals.  I have witnessed groups so large (over some of our coastal marshes) that they looked like plumes of smoke rising from an unseen fire. Today’s swarm was much more modest – I’d say about 50 insects.  They clustered together in a ball about a foot from the ground and maintained their position despite wind gusts. Midges focus on so-called “markers” in order to keep their position. In this case, it was a lone limestone rock sitting slightly higher than the rest. Often, we become the markers, by the way, which is why they seem to follow us like campfire smoke.

  These mating swarms are all male affairs. I took a few swipes at the masculine cloud and came up with two or three stunned little individuals.  They had the large bushy antennae that identify their sex (“large” being a relative term here since the creatures are only a couple of millimeters long).  As the rest of the cloud resumed its shape, the little guys in my palm recovered and flew off to join their stag group.  Although I couldn’t hear it, I know that the whole cloud was emitting a low buzz caused by the rapid beating of hundreds of tiny wings. 

  The female midges are attracted by this “hmmm” and eventually dart up from the grass below and join up with one of the males.  The couple mates while on the wing and she then drops out.  Eventually she lays her eggs in the water and the cycle of life is complete.  No females came while I was there, but I have the feeling it was because I was there (better door than a window kind of thing).

   The one last thought to ponder regarding these amorous little flies is why they gather into such large groups in the first place.  With predators swooping all about, it seems that such a tactic would be dangerous. As it turns out, a large swarm insures greater protection from flying predators.  The chances of any one individual being eaten are greatly reduced when there are a whole lot of them. 

  On the other hand, researchers have found that smaller swarms provide the best chances for mating to occur.  So, the male midge has one final life decision to make during his brief life: Does he chose a short lustful life with the small swarm or fall back to a longer life of chastity with the large swarm? Faced with this difficult choice, they ponder their lot, as we ponder them, and we both say “Hmmmmmmmmmmm.”

May 14, 2007

Le Petit Precheur

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:39 am

  Allow me to introduce you to a unique Fleur Savauge that is now making an appearance in our local woodlands: the Jack-in-the-Pulpit. It is immediately identifiable by its tubular flower and usual complement of two three-parted leaves.  Although predominately green, the flower structure alone distinguishes it as one of the showiest in the woodland congregation.

  The common name refers to the resemblance of the flower to a preacher – or “Jack” – standing at his pulpit.  The pulpit, actually a modified leaf known as a spadix, bears an un-canny resemblance to the old style raised pulpits (take a look at a few examples here, here, and here). The “Jack”, on the other hand, looks nothing like any earthly preacher man – unless your pastor looks like a green tongue with no eyes.  This part is known in botanical circles as the spadix. The actual reproductive part of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit is in the form of tiny flowers at the base of this spadix (and hidden from view as reproductive parts should be).

  This cool green exterior, as it turns out, masks a very complex organism upon closer examination. 

  First of all, you’ll note that no two Jack-in-the-Pulpits are exactly alike. Some are large – two feet or more in height- while others are tiny (a whole plant only 8 inches tall). Some have two leaves, some have one. Some flowers are boldly streaked with maroon while others are just plain green. The color pattern differences are so prominent that some folks divide this plant into several overlapping subspecies. Even a cursory glance at some of the medicinal uses for this plant hints at a severe identity crisis in the making. Various root concoctions have been used to “counteract witchery to the face’ (whatever that means!), treat eye problems, remedy cold symptoms, induce vomiting & contraception (not in that order), and poison rival tribes. Given that last entry, it is even odder to note that the root of the plant was also used as a food item. Indian Turnip is another common name referring to this property. According to instructions, the roots lose their poisonous qualities once they are sliced, dried and boiled. My personal philosophy is to eat something that doesn’t have poison in it in the first place, but that’s just me.

  So, what deep dark secret does this plant hold?  Well, the simple answer is that it undergoes frequent sex change operations.  Yes, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit can become a Jill-in-the-Pulpit depending on how much the congregation puts in the collection basket each year. When first starting out, the plant produces a male flower.  After a few years it builds up a reserve of energy in the roots and is able to produce a female flower. Should times go bad, that same plant reverts to maleness. 

  According to a badly translated French language website, the decision for Le Petit Precheur (the Little Preacher) to change sex can be caused by “lack of water or certain nutritive elements and even the breaking of a sheet.” The “sheet” is apparently the translation of the “spathe”.  This decision of what kind of clothes to wear is determined by the conditions of the previous growing season. Once the plant sprouts in the spring, it is committed. 

  Now that you know this, you can determine whether a plant is a “Jack” or a “Jill” without waiting to see which bathroom it enters. The “Jacks” are very small and often only have one leaf to call their own. The “Jills” are the large robust plants with two full leaves. Peek inside the pulpits, and you’ll see the actual flower structure as a corn-on-the-cob type arrangement around the base of the preacher (who we’ll just call “Pat”). These, of course, will either be female or male structures depending on the year. You’ll notice a few Fungus Gnats hanging around down there in either case. These tiny black insects act as the pollinating agents for the “Pat-in-the-Pulpit.” 

  There is one more major difference to reveal when it comes to the treatment of the pollinating Gnats. The male pulpit has an opening at the bottom to allow these little guests to escape once they have partaken of the nectar and covered themselves with pollen. The female has no such opening.  Once the gnats enter the realm within her pulpit, they are usually trapped there for the rest of their natural born lives (which amounts to a few days). 

  Now, none of this is as sinister as it sounds.  Dying within the clutches of a plant in drag is normal for the Fungus Gnat.  The female expression of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit goes on to produce beautiful red berries thanks to this pollination.  These in turn will eventually sprout into a whole new generation of transvestites. C’est La Vie.

May 10, 2007

Web Browsing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 pm

The obscured environment of this morning’s fog provided an opportunity for me to see some things more clearly.  A soupy fog does turn the familiar into the unfamiliar and substance into shadow, but it also sharpens our concentration and demands full use of our senses. When the edge of the road becomes the edge of the known earth and when faith dictates that the pavement ahead of you is still there, the need for a new opportunity may not be immediately obvious.  If we didn’t have to drive in it, chances are fog would become a thing of beauty. With this idealistic thought in mind, I found that web browsing is a great fog day activity.

I’m not talking about the World Wide variety of web when I mention browsing. No, I’m talking about spider webs. I realize that half of you probably just had a knee jerk negative reaction to the word “spider” while the other half just thought “what is he talking about.” Since there are probably only two of you out there reading this, allow me to take you on a brief web photo safari. You’ll need to go to my photo link to see the “web cam” shots I took this morning. Let’s take a look at a few webs and focus on one skillful little web maker.

Each and every spider web in the landscape was bedecked with jewel-like droplets of dew this morning.  They say there are over a million spiders in every acre of land (there you go again with that knee thing) and this would be the day to prove it. I stopped at 152 1/2, but I’m sure there were a lot more. Of course not all spiders weave webs, so I can only refer to the net spinners.

In the filtered sunlight of dawn, hundreds of classic orb webs were suspended from the upright stems of the cat-tails (see Orb Weaver Web detail).  All were facing in a northeast/southwest direction – something I’ve never noted before. The Orb weavers in this case were probably Shamrock Spiders (‘top of the morning to ‘ya). The makers were hidden away among the stems after a long night of hanging around. From the look of the webs, there weren’t too many catches last night.  A close up look at each thread within each web reveals multiple strings of watery pearls (See Strings of Pearls). Several of these sticky threads are joined together to form roman numerals. I’m willing to bet that these numbers might add up to 1 million should one care to count them, although I have the feeling they would actually add up to 42.

As beautiful as orb webs are, the innovation award goes to the modest little Bowl & Doily Spider. Her works are largely unknown. Known as Frontinella communis by her Roman buddies, this spider creates a masterful three-part web. Today’s conditions brought out this detail in stunning clarity (see Bowl & Doily Spiderweb). 

The name of the Bowl & Doily refers to the unique construction of the web which appears as a rounded bowl over a doily. The “bowl” is only four or five inches across and it sits beneath a tangle of threads. The doily layer is a flat sheet web spread out beneath the bowl, but it does not touch it.  The tiny spider (see Bowl and Doily in Position) hangs from the bottom of the bowl and waits for her prey.When insect prey comes along, it bungles into the non-sticky silk tangle and falls down into the bowl. Our spider then bites the hapless victim through the bowl bottom and eventually wraps it in a silk burrito for later snacking.  Realizing that the predator often becomes the prey, the 3-4 mm arachnid insures her protection by residing in the space between the doily and the bottom of the bowl – preventing birds from picking her off the web.

Finally, take a look at the portrait of one of these marvelous silk smiths (see Showing Her Stripes).  Her boldly striped abdomen is an impressive feature lost on miniscule size.  Often both male and female spiders can be found in these webs, but I didn’t see any of the smaller males today.

By mid morning, the fog had lifted and the sun soon evaporated the dew pearls. Like the rest of the webs, the work of the Bowl & Doily Spiders was returned to obscurity.   






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