Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 28, 2007

Conradulations

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:09 pm

My spell check went into conniptions when I typed in the title “Conradulations” for this piece. I chose to ignore the wiggly red error line in this case because I meant what I wrote. It is not my intention to send Congratulations (although I do wish that to all those high school grads out there), but instead to call attention to a snail’s tongue known as a radula.  This being the case, any discussion about a radula could be considered as a “radulation” and acknowledgement of a radula job well done would be a Conradulation.

  It so happens that I was watching a Mystery snail crawl up my aquarium glass and marveling at it’s constantly moving tongue. Take a look at my drawing and you’ll see what I saw (look here). The most notable feature is the expansive foot pad, but it is the long snout, protruding out from between the tentacles, that gives the animal its personality.  At the end of this snout, or proboscis, is the mouth opening is pressed up against the glass like the end of a vacuum hose. Inside the mouth is a tiny pink tongue called a radula. This tongue is in constant back and forth motion and is the key to snail feeding behavior.

  Most snails, like this giant Mystery variety, live by grazing on microscopic plant life such as diatoms and algae.  Grazers need teeth, and there are hundreds (sometimes thousands) of them arranged row upon row on the tongue.  The snail tongue term of Radula is based on the latin word for scraper, which is an apt description of this file-like appendage. Take a look here at this detailed view showing the rows of sharp microscopic hooks.  Snails got teeth – lot’s of ‘em.

  In technical terms, the toothed structure is called as “chitinous ribbon,” but let’s just keep on calling it a tongue. By moving the whole tongue forward and back, the critter rasps off the algae strands and then pushes them forward where they are sucked down into the throat. Our mystery snail moves his snout from side to side in order to graze a pathway across the glass. Each species has a very specific arrangement and number of teeth, but only people with too much time on their hands spend that time counting snail teeth.

   As would be expected, this dental tool set is constantly wearing down.  New teeth are produced from the back of the tongue as quickly as those in the front wear out.  Tongue tooth production is constant and rapid. Basically we have a tooth conveyer belt going on here.  

  I sense at this point that you may be reaching the tolerance limit for snail tooth talk, so I will leave the subject for you to mull over (or bring up at the breakfast table). Just in case you’ve got some unsatisfied curiosity about Mystery Snails, here’s a great site to view. There are over 36 different species found across the world (another thing to bring up during lunchtime discussion). The individual that I was lip-reading appears to be the Oriental Mystery Snail – an introduced species from S.E. Asia, but there are some 17 native types in North America. To complete your meal discussion list, perhaps you can also bring up the fact over dinner that Mystery Snail males have a right eye stalk that is modified as a…well, let’s just say… as a “reproductive organ.” Now there’s some food for thought.

 Whether or not you want to think about such nasty reproductive details, Mystery snails are members of a family that actually bear their young live. In other words, they do not lay eggs, but pop out complete little snailets ready to enter the big wide world as fully equipped tongue eaters. To those new graduates I say “Conradulations.”

June 26, 2007

Go Out There and Break a Wing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:06 pm

  Everybody knows the Killdeer.  This bird “…is too well known to merit any extended notice,” according to Michigan Bird Life (1912) author William Barrows.  “It has the exasperating habit of signaling the approach of a stranger,” he goes on to say, “…and is more likely to rush into danger than to avoid it.”  Barrows observes that the Killdeer is “not a good table bird, and the few that are killed by gunners are shot commonly in anger…”

  So, what is it about this bird that elicited such a colorful response from an otherwise staid and professional observer of bird life? Killdeers are a loud in-your-face kind of bird that defy the basic laws of natural behavior and share our love of open ground. They follow us into our plowed fields, gravel parking lots, and barren sand pits and show no timidity when it comes to balling us out. Their incessant calling can be irritating and they do tend to take us on, rather than flee our presence. My encounter with one yesterday brought all these bold traits to mind (although I wasn’t tempted into killdeercide).

  I nearly ran over a nesting female who was sheltering her clutch just inches from the edge of a dirt service road. The location was a quintessential Killdeer spot – being out in the middle of a searing hot short grass field. Her clutch of four speckled eggs were neatly arranged within a shallow bowl of scooped out gravel which served as a nest. There was absolutely no cover at the location and the mid-afternoon ground temperature was well over 100 degrees.

  As I approached the nest, this bird let out a staccato trill and began to display her oscar winning talents. (Take a look here and here to see her performance). She stepped away from her clutch, but immediately turned toward me to display her apparently broken right wing. She dragged the appendage on the ground and flared her chestnut brown tail as if favoring her left leg.  I ignored her and bent down to observe the beautiful eggs.  This prompted her to begin anew with a dramatic reenactment. This time she threw in a freshly broken left wing and increased the intensity of the trill.  To a potential nest predator, this would have been an offer too good to resist – why eat a few eggs when you can feast on a wounded parent bird instead?  Not being a nest predator, I indulged her anyway and took a few steps in her direction. As expected, she mustered her strength and was able to keep just out of my reach.  She would have kept this up until I was lured far away from the nest – at which point she’d take to the air and return to the nest.

  There is something admirable about a bird that would throw down its own life to protect her precious brood. I might suggest, however, that all this drama would be unnecessary if only a proper nest location had been chosen in the first place.  This is not the Killdeer way, however, and I was not around when the scripts were being passed out.

 Because many of you have probably witnessed this display before and are very familiar with the Killdeer, I guess it is my job to point out a few new observations.

  Of course, the common name comes from the common call of this bird: “Kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee,” but listen here and you’ll see that this animal exhibits a wide variety of noise making abilities that earned it the scientific name of Charadrius vociferous – the Noisy Plover.  While the bold black neck rings are a distinctive visual trait, it is also worth your time to take a close look at the startlingly bright scarlet eye ring surrounding the huge eyes (look here). The phrase “jeepers creepers where’d you get those peepers” will come to mind if you chance to view one of these birds through a pair of binoculars.

  While in the process of eyeballing one of these loquacious plovers, take a look at their feet. Unlike most birds, Killdeers have only three toes per foot (lacking the backward pointing fourth toe).  The triad of toes originates from a thickly padded heel. This arrangement represents an adaptation to a running lifestyle. It is a general trend of functionality that running animals tend to reduce their number of toes over time. The Killdeer has taken the first step on this evolutionary racetrack and the horse has taken this trend to its fullest extent with only one toe per foot.

  I eventually returned to my car and waited around for the anxious female Killdeer to return to her eggs. Mr. Barrows states it well when he writes that the eggs are “surprisingly large” for a robin-sized bird.  At about 1 ½ inches by 1 inch, the speckled marvels beg the question as to how such a small bird can manage such a packet and live to tell about it. The eggs (see here) blend in well against their barren background.

  The female arrived over the eggs in a very short time and resumed her calm motherhood role. Her primary goal today was to shade the eggs from the intense heat of the sun. To achieve this, she squatted over them like a parasol – allowing the slight breeze to circulate beneath her. As she patiently stood, she opened her mouth and panted.

  Both parents maintain this routine for 24-28 days until the little ones hatch out.  Through selected employment of their acting and parenting skills, they will insure that another generation of thespians will carry on the odd Killdeer way.

June 24, 2007

An Explosion of Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:59 am

  Repeat after me: “Mayflies are good, Fishflies are Mayflies, Mayflies are Juneflies,  Juneflies are Goodflies.”  This message needs to be preached from the pulpits of life and the altars of everyday life. The annual hatch of these aquatic insects presents a story of eternal redemption. Yes, my brothers and sisters, Mayflies are harbingers of hope.  Alleluia, alleluia.

  Many of you probably already have “religion” when it comes to mayflies, but at the risk of preaching to the choir, it is important to embrace the subject.

  The first obstacle to overcome is what name to use when referring to “them.” Technically, I am referring to the species Hexagenia limbata, the Burrowing Mayfly (see here).  This is the species that emerges from Lake Erie in biblical numbers to cover every vertical surface within flight distance of the water. Although Mayfly is the proper name, they are better known as Fishflies.  Because this type emerges in June, and not May, they are also justifiably called Juneflies.  Our Canadian neighbors have been known to refer to them as British Soldiers and Fly Fisherfolk call them Golden or Michigan Mayflies. Our present concern is that far too many people call them a “nuisance.”

  The burrowing mayfly is the largest member of its clan – a collective of over 600 North American species in the order “Emphemeroptera.”  This order name literally means “wing for a day,” because mayflies “fly” for only a day or two out of their lives. Many of our kind only see them during this brief flight stage, so assume they are a short-lived creature whose sole purpose is to foul up our daily life. Actually our giant fishflies count their age in years, rather than the monthly or daily system used by most insects.

  The life cycle from egg to adult can take up to three years.  Burrowing Mayflies spend their developing years as aquatic nymphs.  The young are equipped with formidable tusks and powerful digging claws to construct “U” shaped burrows in the lake bottom. From the protection of this den they eat detritus and grow until they are about 2 inches long.  After a year or two (depending on the water temperature and habitat quality) the burrow gets to be a tight fit.  In late spring/ early summer, the fat nymphs wiggle to the surface, shed their old skin (and their gill breathing ways) to live their last 48 hours as an air breathing air flying adult.

  This aquatic life stage holds the key to their redemptive message. Mayfly nymphs can not live in polluted water.  Not so long ago, Lake Erie and the Detroit River were cesspools of pollution. Mayflies could not tolerate these conditions and virtually became extinct in the Western basin.  Fortunately, things changed for the better and by the 1990’s the insects began a dramatic comeback. Between 1991 and the current day, the Burrowing Mayfly population has grown at an exponential rate. The ever increasing hatches of these tiny messengers serve as an environmental indicator of improving water quality.

  A mayfly emergence can be a dramatic thing. It is not unusual to have a density 500 larvae per square meter of lake bottom, so you can imagine what it’s like when they come to the surface all at once. Take a look at this Doppler radar image of a large mayfly hatch coming out of the upper Mississippi River a year or two ago – it is a veritable explosion of life. Warm, muggy conditions will signal a communal night hatch. As the nymphs rise to the surface, they shed their old skin and fly to the shelter of shoreline trees or buildings.  This newly emerged individual is called a sub-imago or dun.  After resting over the course of the day, the sub-imago sheds its skin one more time to achieve the golden brown imago or spinner stage (see the cast off skin here).   At this point the adult is locked and loaded for mating.

  The setting sun at the end of the first (and only) day signals the final act.  Adult mayflies gather into huge hovering swarms near the waters edge. Individual flies commence to dance like tiny puppets pulled by invisible strings. They rise up several feet and then freefall the same distance. Two long “tail” streamers accentuate the motion and add to the dramatic presentation. Soon, a male and a female find each other and they join their abdomens in mid air. Locked in a mating embrace, the pair employs their duel wing power to journey over the open water.  The female then distributes her eggs over the surface and both of the lovers die.  It is in death that the cycle is completed.

  Many of the mayflies never make it to the Promised Land.  Instead, their lifeless bodies pile up in windrows at the Service Station – lured by the irresistible appeal of the bright lights. Since they have no mouths and can’t eat, they simply waste away their brief time.  Even in this seemingly hopeless situation, mayflies serve their most crucial role – they are food to innumerable birds and spiders.  In the water, they are the mainstay of the seasonal diet of fish as both nymphs and adults.

  Many Monroe old-timers will recall the phenomenal mayfly hatches they experienced prior to the mid-1940’s. They may not consider it a good memory, but at least it was part of everyday life. A generation has now grown up without that experience. Let’s hope that our present generation can view the current mayfly comeback as a signal of the redemption of a once broken lake. Spread the good word.

June 22, 2007

What’s Good for the Goose

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:02 am

  For a select group of Canada Geese in S.E. Michigan, migration season starts in late June.  It starts against the stated wishes of the geese in question and without the use of their wings. These hand picked geese are part of an annual goose round-up at Lake Erie Metropark Golf Course. Thursday was round-up day and I was there to assist in the process.

  You might say I kinda directed the thing, but one does not direct the activities of Canadian Geese.  The Geese are in control and we, as humans, pretend to have mastery over them.  Occasionally we need to inflict our pseudo-dominance because these birds are making a bid to take over our part of the planet.

  A century ago, the largest of the Canada Goose clan, the so-called “Giant” Canada Goose, was a rare feature of the landscape.  These honkers were probably never common, but were considered extinct by the mid twentieth century.  Early records from the Pointe Mouillee Shooting Club – now the Pointe Mouillee Game Area – show that Canada Geese were very small part of the annual take.

  There are at least a dozen different forms of Canada Geese on the planet.  All are basically the same in terms of color (gray brown body, black neck and white chin strap) but extremely variable in terms of neck length and weight.  The smallest form, called the Cackling Canada Goose (say that three times fast) weighs in at a duck-like 3 pounds.  The largest, our Giant Canada, can tip the scales at over 23 pounds. 

  For a long time, even seeing a Giant Canada was considered a report worthy event. Beginning in the 1960’s, extensive protective measures were initiated in order to bring the bird back. The good news is that the breeding and release programs have brought the sub-species back with a vengeance. The bad news is that the breeding and release programs have brought the sub-species back with a vengeance.

  It so happens that these hardy beasts find favor with our cultured landscape. As grazers, they find our golf courses, yards and parks resplendent with their chosen fare.  There are now more Giant Canada Geese than there ever were – ever!  Too much of a good thing is not good, so we have spent the last decade trying to figure out how to put a cap on their numbers.  If you put an “r” after the “c” in the word “cap,” you will identify one of the major problems with this bird. Their fertilizing abilities are nothing short of phenomenal.

  Another problem is that there is a significant part of the population that doesn’t feel the need to migrate south any more.  To them, the traditional “V” in the autumn sky is an old school thing.  They stick around all year.

  So, how do you de-goose the landscape? The annual duck & goose hunting season exerts some control over the migratory part of the population.  A special early September and late winter season were started a few years ago in an effort to get at some of the non-migratory ones.  We have used dogs, explosives, barriers, and mystic incantations to control the rest – with mixed success.  Rounding up the birds and transporting them to other areas has proven to be a satisfying, although not terribly effective, means.

  This brings us back to the recent round-up.  Late spring/early summer is the only time this can be done.  The goslings are still flightless and the adults choose this time to molt their flight feathers, so are flightless themselves. I’ve posted a few photos for you to view (here, here, here, and another one here) so I won’t go into detail about the process. 

  In short, the idea is to set up a temporary pen of snow fence next to a pond full of geese.  You drive the geese out of the pond and into the pen using a boat and a whole bunch of screaming people on the shore. Once the geese are in the enclosure, the back section of fence is swung over like a gate and the birds are captive. From there, each bird is transferred into a trailer and transported to various destinations.

  We managed to get 91 birds.  Twelve of them were adult birds and the rest were juveniles ranging in age from yellow downed elementary agers to nearly adult teenagers.  You’ll note in the pictures that the older juveniles have “dirty white” chin patches and clusters of down still clinging to the back of the head.

  For the sake of minimizing the embarrassment factor, I won’t go into how many times it took to maneuver these flocks into the enclosures or how many escaped.  It is a euphemism to simply state that we “transferred” the geese to the trailer.  Grabbing a penned goose can sometimes be a greased pig experience. I can proudly say that I was not bitten nor pooped upon in the process of nabbing at least 45 of the birds.

  A few of the geese did escape the enclosure by rushing the fence and slipping under it. One feisty juvenile did the deed and launched into an all-out sprint.  A running goose can out run a human, so we made no attempt to gather it in.  The last I looked, that bird was still galloping at top speed down the center of the fare way and is still be running for all I know.

  Our birds are now on their way to Kentucky.  I’m sure Blue Grass state will appeal to their grazing needs and provide a chance for them to give some racing tips to the horses.

June 19, 2007

In Cold Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:51 pm

     The Rana girls are pretty much in the same place every day. They’re not much in the small talk department and can bore you into a stupor with their inactivity.  In fact, on the “exciting to be around meter,” they come in just after drying paint and growing corn observation.

  As bullfrogs, they certainly have a lot of “wow” potential.  Weighting in at 1 lb. or more and measuring up to an excess of 8 inches from snout to tail bone, they represent the largest frog in North America.  They have the singular ability to eat just about anything that fits in their mouth (see this video on the Natl. Geographic site) and are the stuff of story (as in Mr. Twain’s Celebrated Jumping Frog) and cuisine (frog legs).  The rolling bellow of the male frogs (listen hear- scroll down to the bullfrog recording) is one of the more impressive sounds of nature, but the sisters are excused from this singular male duty.

  With all this going for them, you’d think that watching them in their natural habitat would be exciting, but such is not the case. Except for the occasional blink or foot readjustment, their role as space saver could just as easily be performed by ornamental lawn frogs. To be fair about it, these frogs have no responsibility to entertain me.  They are cold-blooded creatures whose energy level is maintained at a very low idling speed. It is their duty to conserve energy until they absolutely need to use it, unlike our warm-blooded passion to burn it up.

  With this thought in mind, I was surprised when the sisters exhibited a veritable flurry of activity the other day. At one point, sister two actually nabbed a passing damselfly. She launched into a short leap, flung out her thick pink tongue, plastered the insect and squeaked with satisfaction before resuming her usual repose.  Sister one continued to stare blankly into space with her tremendous marble-like eyes and registered no reaction to the nearby excitement. (This is the same individual that was nearly overturned by a passing muskrat last week but maintained her place with an equally stone faced response.)

  You can imagine my shock,then, when I saw sister one begin to twitch.  Not believing my eyes, I was astounded to see her repeat the dramatic performance and then follow it up with an encore.  What could make her display such youthful vigor, I wondered? Upon closer examination, I saw that her actions were inspired by the pesky attentions of a mosquito. Every time the skeeter landed on her back, it evoked a localized twitch like that of a horse. 

  As warm bloods, we humans believe that mosquitoes are strictly our burden to bear.  Deadly malaria virus transmitting mosquitoes certainly have altered the course of human history, but the fact is that not all mosquitoes feed on humans.  Some species restrict themselves to birds, while others specialize in cold-bloods like snakes, turtles, and frogs.

  The females of the clan do all the blood sucking – the males stick to a diet of plant juice. Whether derived from bullfrog blood or Timmy’s left arm, a blood donation is digested over the course of several days.  During that time she is uses the blood proteins to nurture several hundred eggs.

  As if my column wasn’t enough to convince you that everything you read isn’t true, I am reminded of a statement from a frog site that states that “amphibians (like the bullfrog) are protected by pathogens, mosquitoes, ticks, and leeches by special components that the skin secretes.”  No, bullfrogs serve as blood donors just like the rest of us. It took a silent still frog to teach me that not every mosquito on earth likes people.

  As far as I know, there is no one particular mosquito species that prefers Bullfrog blood, but one – called Culex pecator – hits on bullfrogs more often than not. When Culex makes a strike, it probably seeks a location where the skin is sun dried and the slime coating at a minimum, such as Ms. Rana’s back.  They also seek out the delicate area behind the eye as a likely drilling site.

  A well placed eyeball bite will frequently elicit a raised white bump similar to our reaction to a mosquito attack. The thought being bit on the back of my eyeball is a sobering thought, one that almost makes me appreciate the bite I just got on my arm…almost.

June 17, 2007

The Ways of the Water Wasp

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 pm

  Somehow, I find it comforting to know that there are creatures out there in the world for whom upside down is right side up. For us humans, an upside down world is a mixed up one. The sooner things are righted, the better. For an animal like a flamingo, the only proper head position is down side up when feeding. This bird spends so much time with its head in reverse pose that the bird’s beak only functions properly when upside down.  Sloths spend their entire life upside down – only making things right when descending the home tree to take care of bathroom needs (yes, when it “goes,” it does it right side up).

  Since only plastic flamingoes and zoo-enclosed sloths inhabit our neck of the woods, we need to look to the aquatic realm to find a resident topsy turvy beast, the Backswimmer.  This is one of those insects that are perfectly named.  It carries on most of the functions of life while belly side up. I’d like you study a few of these Backswimmer shots to see what I mean (see here and here

  Backswimmers are insects that are members of the True Bug group.  True Bugs are not the opposite of Fake Bugs, but rather insects that are typified by leathery half wings and piercing moth parts. Assassin Bugs, Stink bugs and the infamous Box Elder Bugs are land lubbing representatives of this group. Backswimmers share the water world with other “bugs” such as the Giant Water Bug, Water Scorpion, and the interestingly named Ferocious Water Bug.  Because most of the aquatic “bugs” are predators, they can inflict painful bites if mishandled. To go along with the tough street names given it’s fellow waterbugs, the Backswimmer is also known as a “Water Wasp” on the lower east side.

  There are many different kinds of Backswimmers out there.  I think the one that sat for my portrait session is a Buenoa margaritacea, but not entirely sure.  Many of these creatures don’t have cute little common names, so we need to talk about them as a group rather than as individuals.  A cute little name can be derived by looking into the scientific name. In this case, margaritacea means “pearl like” and Buenoa means “good or beautiful,” so we have the Beautiful Pearl Backswimmer.

  As an insect, the Pearly backswimmer has six legs, but only two are immediately obvious. Superbly adapted for swimming, the last pair of legs is equipped like a set of oars – with the paddle end made up of stiff bristles. The middle pair are fairly short and used for grasping vegetation, while the front legs are bent into gaff hooks to snare prey. Once the prey is pursued and pounced upon, the water wasp impales it with a hollow stiletto beak and proceeds to pump out all its nutritious life fluids. Like disposing an empty box drink carton, the shell of the victim is discarded when the drink is done.

  This species exhibits another interesting upside-down trait through a feature called reverse counter coloration.  Most animals of the air and water are subject to attack from predators lurking below or above them.  To make themselves harder to locate, such critters are normally dark colored on top and light colored below. In this way, they are more difficult to see against the lighter sky above, when viewed from below, and equally as hard to see against the darker background when viewed from above. This is called counter coloration.  Being a reverse kind of dude, the Backswimmer is therefore light colored above (nearly white, as a matter of fact) and dark colored below. Neat, eh? 

    Like other aquatic insects, the Pearly Backswimmer takes along a bubble of air in order to breathe underwater. Patches of bristles on the abdomen trap and hold a silvery blanket bubble during dives.  When at the surface, the Backswimmer suspends itself – up side down of course – and projects the tip of his abdomen into the air in order to replenish the oxygen supply. Our pearly friend breathes through tiny breathing pores on the abdomen that open into the trapped air.  According to one reference, the water wasp can remain underwater for up to 6 hours if inactive.  They are rarely in an inactive state, however, so they are constantly diving and rising in their quest for life.

  Part of that life quest involves locating a mate, and male backswimmers are known as accomplished serenaders.  The males rub their front legs along a “stridualatory” structure on their chest to beat out a romantic melody that is irresistible to female backswimmers (I do not believe that this song contains a secret message if played right side up, either). 

  Should no females answer the call, the water wasp has one more backhanded trick to perform – it can fly to another pond (or to your pool).  As far as I know, Backswimmers yield to the laws of aerodynamics and fly right side up.

June 15, 2007

Pretty Poison

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:54 pm

   What do Dermatitis, Cashews, Japanese Lacquer Boxes and Indian Marking Nuts have in common? Well, for one, they are all related in topic to some “herbe a la puce” flowers I was examining yesterday along a wooded trail.  The flowering “puce” in question was a luxuriant Poison Ivy vine dangling threateningly low over the path. These infamous plants are allowed to bloom in relative obscurity because everyone avoids them like the plague. Few peer close enough to observe the gentler side of this irascible neighbor.

  Admittedly, the flower clusters are easy to overlook, but I’ve snapped a few shots for you to safely view (look here and here and here).  The clusters appear at the end of each growing vine tip – the axillary portion, according to botanists. Most of the visible petals are light yellow green with tufts of yellow at the center. There are hundreds of flowers on each cluster, and each individual flower has five petals spanning 5 mm across.  Male and female flowers are found on different plants, so the blooms in question would likely be the male flowers exhibiting their manliness in the form of pollen bearing anthers. I didn’t seek out a female plant, but I can lay your mind at ease and tell you that the female flower clusters are similar and that each individual flower produces one seed.


  Pollinators in the form of winged insects, such as so-called “sweat” bees (see here), actively seek this sweet nectar source. It is safe to say that they love this plant. In fact, animals especially like the foliage and dozen of bird species eat the nutritious white fall berries. Populations of over-wintering Yellow-rumped Warblers (or Butterbutts as they are affectionately known) depend on good Poison Ivy fruit crops.

  Humans appear to be the only local life form that cannot form a friendship with this plant.  The non-volatile oils that permeate the stem, leaves, flowers and berries cause us no end of trouble if we contact it. The thick oily sap is laced with an allergenic agent known as Urushoil (3-pentadecyl catechol).  There is no portion of the plant that is safe to touch, period. Even burning it presents the risk of inhaling the noxious fumes and irritating sensitive bronchial tubes.

  The name Urushoil comes from the Japanese word for the Lacquer Tree – Kiurushi. This tree has long been tapped for its thick black sap which hardens into the shiny varnish used to coat ornamental boxes.  The Kiurushi is in the same family as the Cashew, the oddly named Indian Marking Nut, and the Poison Ivy. All are members of the Anacardiaceae or Cashew Family, and all have urushoil in them. 

  Just to be complete, here is a segment from a medical site which discusses the properties of the nasty “u” oil: “Urushiol, a group of alkylcatechols, is found in the sap of poison-ivy plants. The allergic reaction has been traditionally thought to involve initial oxidation by which a protein-reactive quinone is formed. Recent work indicates that redox cycling in the skin, following penetration of the allergenic alkybenzenes, initially depletes local levels of endogenous-reducing equivalents such as NADH and glutathione. Further cycling results in the uncontrolled generation of radical species that exhibit protein reactivity. The urushiol is not volatile and can contaminate clothing, tools, and domestic animals. Under dry conditions, the chemical can remain harmful for long periods (Mulligan 1990,Schmidt et al. 1990). “

  Did you catch all of that?  If not, it basically says that the oil causes Dermatitis that is bubbly, raw, itchy and capable of spreading. I’ll spare you the graphic illustrations presented in the paper, since most of us are intimately familiar with the resulting rash. I can’t resist mentioning, though, the one photo that shows the case of an individual who accidentally wiped his derriere with Poison Ivy leaves – it is not a pretty thing.

  Because of urushoil, cashew nuts have to be heat treated before they can be safely eaten and I’m pretty sure the same is true of Indian Marking Nuts (although I’ve not a clue what they are).  Japanese lacquer workers have to be very careful as well. Some of these lacquer craftsmen have long claimed that they can become immune to the deleterious effects by chewing on the raw lacquer.  Natural food guru Euell Gibbons once claimed that we could achieve the same immunity to poison ivy by eating the young, less potent, leaves. 

  I need to state here and now that there is no such thing as immunity to Poison Ivy and that Euell Gibbons is dead.  It is true that some folks start off life with the ability to roll around naked in the stuff without effect while others catch it with a sideways glance.  The immunity wears down over with time and repeated exposures. That last nude roll in the ivy patch may well result in a clinical photo of your derriere on a medical site.

  The best defense in this case is learning how to identify it. Poison Ivy has three leaflets per leaf.  They are smooth, glossy, and edged with a few jagged “teeth.” It can grow as a ground-hugging vine or a woody tree climbing vine of massive proportions (see here – the tree is on the left and the Poison Ivy is on the right). The vines are normally hairy due to the abundance of aerial climbing roots. 

  I invite you to sneak a close look at some Poison Ivy flowers this week, if nothing more than to say that you did it (bragging rights). Should you contact the leaves, immediate washing usually takes care of the problem.  Euell Gibbons once said that a brisk rubbing with Jewelweed leaves will achieve the same desired effect, but for some reason I am hesitant to put that advice to the test.

June 13, 2007

See Gull?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 pm

 With one out at the bottom of the 6th inning, Tiger outfielder Curtis Granderson drove a ball deep into right field off the Brewers pitcher.  Although there were at least seven outfielders in right, none reached the ball in time and it dropped in for a hit. Brandon Inge cruised home on Granderson’s triple.  Earlier in the same inning, a visitor ran between the plate and mound as Verlander launched one of his deadly fastballs.  The throw barely missed the intruder and it was a clean strike over the center of the plate.

  Fortunately, none of these incidences spoiled what turned out to be an historic game last night.  Neither manager objected to the extra fielders nor to the potential interference posed by the infield visitors.  Justin Verlander went on to pitch a no hitter and earn a place in the record books. 

  There were many newspaper stories about last night’s game, but the one that caught my eye shows one of those extra outfielders making a catch – it is a picture of a Gull catching a moth.  Yes, those extra outfielders and pesky infield visitors at Comerica Park are birds.  The problem I have is that everyone is calling them “seagulls.”  The latest AP article uses the term “seagull” in an otherwise factual article. In fact, one of the national TV announcers last week didn’t know what exactly to call them. He only stated that he knew “they weren’t pigeons because they were white.”

  I would never be able to call a ball game or write a decent sports story, so I guess my roll is reduced to that of the “resident baseball naturalist.”  As the RBN, my first duty is to point out that there is no such thing as a “Seagull.”  I will bypass the “no white pigeons” comment for now and simply state that the baseball “seagulls” in question are Ring-billed Gulls.

  Just as surely as the language of baseball includes fastballs, sliders, sinkers, and curveballs the language of gulls includes Ring-bills, Herrings, Bonaparte’s, and many more.  It would make for some pretty dull play by play for a commentator to simply say “Verlander makes a pitch and it’s low.  That pitch was high and inside. There he goes again with yet another pitch that just missed the corner.  Looks like Mr. Verlander really is a pitcher after all, Jim.”  The same goes for saying something like “Look Jim, there’s a seagull.” 

  As the RBN in the announcement booth, I could have added some color commentary such as “You know Bill, I just saw one of these birds flying over Anchor Bay the other day and I could have sworn it was a Bagel (get it – baygull). Gulls are all in the genus Larus, a group that is collectively known as “seabirds,” but many of them never actually see the sea.  The birds that we see out here tonight are Ring-billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis.”

  Now you know why there is no such thing as a RBN.

  Getting back to the bird in hand (or glove), the Ring-bill is the commonest of our local gulls. (Take a look at one of these birds patrolling a McDonald’s parking lot seeking wild fries.)  They are about 16”-17” long with a four foot wingspan.  The adults are mostly white with gray wings and back, but the most distinctive feature is the yellow bill with a prominent black ring near the tip. If you want to really get into gull lingo, you might find yourself saying something like “this species has a black ring at the gonydeal angle of the beak.” To say something like that is just as bad as saying seagull, in my opinion. That is geekspeak for the sharply angled expansion near the tip of gull beak, and is no substitute for plainly stating that “this bird has a ring around its bill.”

  The Herring Gull is another summer resident gull that might be confused with the ring-bill, but it is much larger.  It has a red spot at the gonydeal ang….excuse me, on the beak rather than a ring. While the Ring-bill has yellow feet, the adult Herring Gull has pink feet. Take a look here for a quick comparison. 

  As a water bird, at least in name, all gulls have delicate webbed feet for swimming and do hang around water most of the time. They are opportunistic omnivores, however, and will go inland wherever there is food in the form of fish, earthworms, grain, garbage, Big Macs, or even White Castles.  Insects are a specialty of this small gull.  Seeing a cloud of these birds following a farmer’s plow to get at the newly exposed grubs is a regular spring scenario. 

  Insects are apparently the reason behind the Comerica Park gull problem.  An invasion of army worm moths (take a look at the article in Weds., June 13, 2007 M. E.N.) have set a tempting table right smack dab in the middle of the ballpark.

  Army worms are drab looking little moths (see here) that often emerge in great numbers and, according to the A.P. story, get “sucked up into the upper atmosphere, carried along and then dumped down.” The stadium lights attract the moths and the moths attract the gulls.

  Ignoring the fact that this article refers to the birds only as “seagulls,” we can now consider this story factually complete.  We are talking about Army Worms, being eaten by Ring-billed Gulls, in Comerica Park.  And now, back to the game

June 11, 2007

A Stupid Name

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:05 pm

  I suppose that I’ve let it slip out in the past that I don’t really like cats. For the sake of dramatic theatre (for the benefit of my kids) I’ve even been known to react with disappointment when I see one make it safely across the road ahead of a car. Kittens are cute, but they are basically cat seeds that grow into the full grown product, so I keep my emotional distance from them.  I did meet a cat that I liked, once.

  I will freely admit that this anti-feline bias has tainted my reaction to the naming of the cattail plant.  The brown seed head of this common marsh plant does not look like a cat’s tail at all. It looks like a hot dog on a stick.  When it erupts late in the season into a fluffy spike, it looks like a smoking hot dog. I think it’s a bad name, but it’s a bit too late to do anything about it.

  It was the great Swedish Biologist Carl Linnaeus who named this group of plants way back in 1753. He dubbed this group of plants with the name Typha, a designation apparently originating in the Greek word for either “bog,” “smoke emitting,” or “reed” -depending on which source you believe. There is no cat connotation to be found. Of the two cattail species found here – Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia – the species name (the second part) means “broad-leaved” and “narrow-leaved” respectively (not big cat, skinny cat). In Europe, these plants are known as “bulrushes” or “reed-mace”.

  There is an obscure reference of a common name being “Cat-O-Nine-Tails,” but the plant’s similarity to this instrument of naval discipline is even more obscure. So, the “Cat-tail” thing can only boil down to one thing: For a very brief time of year, the male flower spike of the cat-tail does kinda look like a cat’s tail.

  It is as a begrudging service to humankind that I point this fact out.  This is the only time of year that you can actually see the part of the cattail plant that looks like the trailing appendage of a feline. If you don’t make an attempt to see this by the end of next week (late June) it will be too late.  After that point all you will find are green hotdogs.

  Cat-tails grow rapidly once the sprouts begin to poke up out of the surface of shallow marshes, ponds and roadside ditches in early April. By late spring the long sword like leaves have reached a height of about 5 feet and the central flower spikes begin to emerge from the center stalk. Our local cat-tails started to flower last week.

  This spike consists of two parts (take a look here). The upper part is the male (staminate) flower and the lower portion is the female (pistillate) part. One good way to tell the difference between the Broad-leaved and Narrow-leaved type (aside from the obvious leaf width difference) is to look at this flower spike. There is a distinct space between the male and female flower on the narrow leaf (the type in my drawing) and the two flowers touch on the broad leaf (see an illustration here).  When the male flower begins to “open up” it really does sorta look like a …well, I don’t need to say it again do I?  Go back and look at it one more time and judge for yourself.

  There are thousands of tiny flowers that make up the hairy looking male flower. Each miniscule floweret looks like a yellow match with a green striking head, but you won’t see this unless you use a 10X magnifying lens. These eventually shed a cascade of bright yellow pollen into the air when prompted by a stiff breeze or a curious naturalist. To prevent self pollination, the pollen on any given plant is released before the female portion is receptive.  A bed of cat-tails really do look like they are smoking when the pollen stage is at peak (perhaps the reason for one of the Greek word designations).

  Down below the male, the female inflorescence consists of up to 300,000 equally tiny flowerets- each with a tiny central pistil (Somebody else counted them, I didn’t). These are fertilized by the pollen and develop into seeds over the course of the summer.  The female flower eventually swells and turns Oscar Meyer brown, while the male flower falls apart and breaks off.

  I will return to the cat-tail story later this summer when the seed heads have attained their fluffy appearance and the leaves are at full height. At that point I’ll show you how to become a member of the ISPSWCP (International Society of People who Sleep With Cattail Pillows).  For the moment, however, there remains one more ephemeral educational opportunity to experience. You can eat the green male flowers.

  Before the male flowers fully emerge from their sheaths to become cat’s tails, you can harvest them and bring them home for supper (see here). Remove the leafy covering (see here), immerse them in water and bring them to a boil (see here).   After a few minutes of steady boiling they are ready to eat (drain them first).  Slap on a pat of butter and some salt and you will find yourself enjoying a rare seasonal treat.  The process will be something like eating off a tiny corncob since the center spike remains intact.

  Should you miss the freshly emerged males and find they have already gone to pollen, you can still try another form of cattail cuisine.  Take a Mason jar and fill it with the golden yellow product (it doesn’t take long if you take each flower head and rattle it inside the jar) and mix it with regular flour to bake biscuits or bread. Don’t use too much, though, because it makes for some pretty heavy fare.

  Eating these two springtime cat-tail products will make you forget all about the stupid name thing. The flowers have some medicinal value to boot. The pollen has been used for external treatment of tapeworms, injuries, and diarrhea.  I’ve been eating cat-tail pollen for years, and I’ve never had tape-worms nor have I had any serious injuries – two out of three ain’t bad.

June 9, 2007

Relative Ugliness

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:12 pm

   If one goes by the adage that fleas have tiny fleas on their back to bite ‘em and on ad infinitum, then picturing something ugly with something still uglier attached should be a fairly easy task. 
  The primary ugly thing in question is the common carp. Graced as they are with huge orange lips, short whiskers and blank cow like stares, they are beyond all but motherlove. These hefty immigrants are in their glory this time of year. The surface of every marsh, pond or shallow lake is boiling with their spawning dance. Huge egg laden females, nearly as round in girth as in length, patrol the weedy shallows.  The males accompany her and wait to fertilize her cascade of eggs. Back fins, tails and golden sides break the surface as the fish roll about.
  While engaged in watching this annual ugly love fest, I spotted the aforementioned attached uglier thing. Firmly attached just under the dorsal fin of a sizable female carp, a Silver Lamprey was silently engaged in its parasitic role.  The silvery beast trailed like a streamer and was clearly visible against the backdrop of dark fish and silty water. I spotted the passenger several times over the course of twenty minutes as the host fish swam about the weed bed.  One time the carp’s back broke the surface and carried the lamprey out of the water.  The lamprey gave an uneasy wiggle, but held firm during its brief trip into the air world.
  Before I am accused of being judgmental, please take a look at this drawing of a Silver Lamprey.  Combining the qualities of a snake, a worm and an eel, here is a fish that is truly aesthetically challenged.  It lacks the paired fins, scales, jaws, and true bones (it has a flexible cartiledge skeleton) of most of the fish clan. The single most distinctive trait of lampreys in general is hinted at in their family name: Petromyzontidae or “stone suckers.” 
  All nineteen species of lamprey have rather large round suctorial mouths and half of them, the Silver Surfer included, use them to feed on the blood of other fish (the other half are non-parasitic).  The non-native Sea Lamprey has given a bad name to the parasitic members of the family. Their damaging efforts have wreaked havoc on native fish populations ever since their migration into the western lakes. The Silver, however, is a small (about 12 inch) native lamprey that is part of the natural order of things.
  The business end of this lamprey is an impressive (but ugly) circular mouth armed with a formidable array of teeth (see it here). All the teeth point inward to a toothy tongue just ahead of the throat. The outer rim of the mouth is lined with a hair-like fringe.  I might point out that a view of the top of the head is equally as endearing (see it here).  Since the mouth takes up so much space, there is little room left for a pair of nostrils.  A single nasal opening can be seen as a rather attractive hole in the middle of the forehead (a sure conversation stopper if ever there was one)
   This handsome look is not attained until the young lamprey has lived for 4 – 7 years as an “Ammocoete” or larvae.  In the larval stage, it feeds on detritus and conceals itself in the mud. Adulthood is signaled by the transformation of the mouth into an instrument of blood sucking, after which the creature is destined to roam the waterways for two years as a parasite. The cycle is complete when two lampreys fall in love and spawn (an act where the female grabs onto a stone, by the way).  Then, they both die.
  It is somewhat ironic, then, that “my” Silver Lamprey was sipping a meal from the back of a spawning carp so that it too can spawn. Once satisfied with a tummy full of blood, it will release its hold and swim off.  The carp will exhibit a raw circular wound as a memento of the experience – a lamprey hickey of sorts.  This wound will heal in time and the ugly fish will regain its beautiful ugliness and live to spawn again.
  As for the future of the ugliest one, it will probably seek out another host or it may have already made plans for a big date this weekend (a date to die for, no doubt).

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