Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 30, 2007

House Pest Guest

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 am

  Have you ever wondered how a centipede can walk without tripping itself? As a two legged beast that often entangles his own appendages, I have pondered the question. The answer is, for the most part, co-ordination – the legs are put forth in a ripple pattern with each leg firing off a nano-second after the one before or after it. All this is controlled by a tiny prick spot of a ganglion. In the most of these creatures, the legs are short enough so that they don’t overlap that much either. It also helps that centipedes don’t have 100 legs to begin with; despite their name (millipedes do not have a million legs either). We are talking tens of legs here, which is plenty.  For those of us with a larger than pin prick of a brain and only two legs to ripple, centipede pedulation is an admirable thing.

  Unfortunately, admiration is not the reaction that most folks have to a particular centipede that pre-ambulates in our kitchens at night. The sight of a House Centipede dashing off – without tripping – when the light is switched on elicits high noises and tribal dancing on our part.  Often a loose shoe accompanies the routine.  This object is smacked down on the counter or the floor right behind the fleeing creature who hauls abdomen and disappears into the nearest corner.

  House Centipedes came to us from the Mediterranean and were first recorded here in 1849. As perennial uninvited house guests since that time, they go about their nocturnal lives undetected in your walls and under your sink. It is only when they are surprised or find themselves trapped within the smooth confines of a bathtub that we come across them and the primitive dance ensues. Those spider like legs are the problem.  They make them look three times larger and creeper than they really are.  House Centipedes are really good house guests not house pests.

  As respectable centipedes, they have multiple legs (look here and here).  There are thirty in all – 15 on each side- with an extra set modified as fangs.  Each set of legs is longer than the one preceding it.  The rear pair is 2 times the length of the first pair. This not only allows for longer legs and faster speed, but solves the tripping problem in that the foot end of each leg occupies a different part of the race track (or kitchen counter).  Such speed abilities place House Centipedes in the category of “nocturnal raptors” (not rappers). They chase down prey like tiny wolves.

  Two fang-like front legs, called forcipules, are plunged into their chosen victim and paralyzing venom is injected (see face detail here and underbelly view here). Small, but significant mandibles equipped with three teeth each, eventually make the prey disappear.  I don’t normally look at “U Tube” sites on the internet, but just in case you’re interested here’s a short one showing a House Centipede devouring a spider (I warn you, the excitement content is minimal). 

  A list of their prey victims reads like a who’s who of household pests: flies, silverfish, bed bugs, cockroaches, and a few spiders.  Except for the spiders, all of these critters are truly damaging house pests.  So, you see the House Centipede is a friend after all – a creepy looking friend – but a real asset.  We all have a few creepy friends that turn out to be much more valuable than they appear. This rule does not apply to my daughter’s boy friends, however.

 House Centipedes do not bite people and will only do so if severely provoked. Their bite has been equated to a bee sting. There is nothing really dangerous about them.

 If you looked at the pictures, you probably noticed that House Centipedes appear to have very long antennae at both ends of their body.  Actually, the last set of legs are super long and adapted to act like antennae to sense movement.  The real antennae at the front of the head are used for both touch and scent detection.  Add a pair of fairly large eyes (something unusual among centipedes) to the fray and you can see why they react so quickly when discovered.  They see you, the light, the shoe and the corner all at the same time.

  An obscure 1904 reference made an interesting comment regarding the fleeing tendencies of House Centipedes. They appeared to deliberately run at women, according to this piece, because the space under their long dresses provided what seemed to be immediate shelter!  No doubt their innocent attempt to get away was severely misinterpreted.  Today long dresses are out, but we continue to misinterpret the leggy beasts.

July 27, 2007

Pancake Pig

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:22 pm

    In order to fully understand the Spiny Soft-shelled Turtle, you must change your way of thinking about turtles in general. It has been a few years since I’ve seen one of these remarkable creatures, so was delighted when one was brought in the other day. A Good Samaritan rescued it from the centerline as it was in the risky process of crossing the road. Take a look at this portrait of the wanderer herself, and you’ll agree this is one odd looking beast.

  While it is not unusual to find turtles crossing the road, it is unusual to find a Soft-shell doing it. They rarely leave the water and venture onto land only as far as absolutely necessary in order to lay eggs or bask in the sun.  In both cases they remain within a few energetic paces of the water’s edge.  When startled, they can be incredibly fast at closing the gap to their liquid refuge. Seeing a Soft-shell doing such a sprint will cause you to put aside your notions that all turtles are slow on land.  I believe this individual was on a mission to find a new waterway after its old place dried up. It was a bit chapped. Land travel is risky business for a turtle with sensitive skin and no external shell.

  Most turtles have a solid bony shell which serves as their refuge for head, feet and tail when danger looms. Their shell consists of a layer of bone, directly connected to the ribs, covered with a layer of dry skin plates called scutes. The Soft-shell has relegated its shell to a central disc of bony plates covered over by a thick layer of tough leathery skin. They cannot completely withdraw their body parts.  Take a look at this detail shot of the olive green skin on the top “shell” (carapace) and this shot of the brilliant white underside (plastron). The overall appearance is that of a speckled pancake with the texture akin to leather or vinyl. It is tough and rubbery but susceptible to cuts, scrapes, or tooth punctures.

  To make up for this lack of a protective shell, these turtles pack a vicious wallop in the form of a lightning fast bite. Sharp edged jaws and a long neck combine for a convincing “one-two” defensive move. The particular turtle that I photographed happened to be a gentle soul and allowed herself to be handled, but don’t expect the same from others of her kind. Female Soft-shells are covered with a sparse array of simple spots or blotches on their shells, while males are adorned with open circle spots called ocelli (that’s “o-sell-eye”, a term meaning eye spots).   In their native element, these disc shaped turtles employ their shells for a much more refined purpose that mere protection.  Since they live in sandy or gravelly bottomed lakes and rivers, the shell pattern perfectly blends them into that environment. They habitually settle into the bottom and await prey, in the form of fish or aquatic insects, to drift ignorantly over them.

  Take a look at this view, and you’ll see where the “Spiny” part of the name comes from.  There are a dozen or so bumps or cones projecting from the leading edge of the shell.  I personally wouldn’t call these things spines, but then again I wasn’t around to voice that opinion when these things were named.  There are other kinds of soft-shells that don’t have these bumps, so they do serve as an irritating identifying feature if nothing else.

  Faced with the necessity of spending extended intervals of time lying motionless on the bottom, the soft shell has devised several ways to breathe without giving itself away. Take a look at this detail shot of that wonderful little breathing straw of a snout. These living snorkels can extend their long necks to the surface in order to poke their pig like nose into the air for a quick breath – without moving the rest of the body and blowing their cover.

  The snorkel method only works in very shallow water, so in deeper environs this turtle converts to skin breathing. Like a hybrid vehicle, it converts from atmospheric air via the lungs to water bound oxygen via permeable membranes in the skin. In essence, the skin acts like a giant gill and absorbs oxygen directly from the water.  The thin skin layer of the mouth interior and the lining of the cloaca is especially suited to this kind of respiration.  They move water back and forth in the mouth cavity by means of a hyoid bone which pumps water in and out (this is pretty much what fish do). As long as the animal doesn’t exert too much effort, lung breathing is downright unnecessary.

 Just to clarify things, the cloaca is a nice term for anal opening, so the long and short of it is that the Spiny Soft-shell  breathes through both its front and rear end. Thank God Jacques Cousteau invented the aqua lung, otherwise we humans might have been required to develop a method of anal breathing for our extended underwater dives. We’ll leave that impressive skill to the likes of the pig nose pancake.

July 25, 2007

Royal Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:15 pm

  As with all royalty, there are secrets regarding the Queen Anne’s Lace that may never be resolved. The public persona of this common plant, however, is very clear. You’ll see the familiar white blossoms gracing nearly every roadway and un-mowed field. She is found in your garden as both crop and uninvited weed.  She is better known to commoners throughout the world as the Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) – the progenitor of the domestic garden carrot.

  Just in case you don’t know what I am talking about, here’s a picture of one of the flowering umbels of this plant (also, for further reference, here’s a link to a great website dedicated to it). The Wild Carrot has few of the obvious qualities of its domestic spawn – the Bugs Bunny Carrot. The familiar orange garden carrot is the result of intense genetic selection which focused on the root portion of the wild plant. The name “carota” means red in the Celtic tongue and comes from the red/orange pigments that make a carrot root so noble and carroty. The original wild plant is still with us and it has traveled across the globe where ever people have tread. It has a long white root, not an orange one, which is rather stringy in texture. You’ll need to pull it up out of the ground and give it a squeeze or a snap to allow the distinctive carrot smell to issue forth and proclaim its blue bloodness.  

  All of this domestic talk is fine, but let’s get to the scandalous part. There is a mysterious stain within the bloom and an uncertainty within the name.

   I used the term “umbel” when pointing out the flower of the Q.A.L., so I’d better explain. An umbel is the botanical term for a flat-topped cluster of flowers. The Queen Anne’s Lace is a classic example of such a thing. The flower head cluster is actually made up of 1,000 to 40,000 individual white flowers. As a whole they take on the form of a delicate white lace doily and this is the reason for the Queen Anne’s Lace moniker.

  The controversy about the name regards exactly which Queen Anne we are talking about. In some parts of the world, the lace making queen in question is Anne Stuart.  This Anne assumed the English throne in 1702 (see a picture here). In her portraits she doesn’t appear to be especially lacey or delicate, but she apparently engaged in lace making.  In other parts of the world, the Queen Anne name refers to the mother of the Virgin Mary and the Mother-in-law of Jesus. Among Saint Anne’s many patronages, lace-makers hold her in special regard.

  The English Queen was Anglican – ascending to the throne due to the Settlement Act intended to exclude Roman Catholics. Saint Anne is revered in the Catholic Church and has an especially devout following among the French Canadian population of North America (St. Anne’s parish being the oldest in Michigan).  So, it appears that this name thing may boil down to religious preference.

  Take a good close look at each umbel of the Wild Carrot (note the use of this neutral name in light of the above discussion) and you’ll see that there is a single odd purple flower at the very center (see here).  This misshapen and sterile bloom looks like a drop of dried blood on the lace. The “rest of the story” – as Paul Harvey would say – is that our royal lace maker (whoever she was) accidentally pricked her finger and a precious drop of her blood dripped onto the center. The lacey flowers forever bear this permanent mark as a reminder of the incident.

  I’d like to resolve this thing with a nice tidy answer revolving around this weird little purple androgynous flower, but I can’t.  It would be nice to say that the royal purple surely represents the English Queen, but equally as nifty to say that one drop of Saint Anne’s blood would be far more significant that that of Anne Stuart. I would like to say that the purple center bloom is there to attract insects. From a distance, the dark flower does make it appear that an insect is on the flower cluster.  Some have argued that this encourages other insects to come and nectar – a decoy of sorts. Unfortunately, this has not been proven and the reason for the structure is unknown.

  DNA will not help us in this quest to determine the mystery behind the tiny blood drop on the white lace.  It is royal blood and that will have to hold us for now.

July 23, 2007

True Blue?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:20 pm

  Nothing is as it seems.  This feather (see here) is actually from a Blue Jay, and it is actually sitting on a Dogwood leaf.  The leaf is really green with chlorophyll, and components of the feather are really white and dark gray, but the blue color is an illusion. This single secondary wing feather reveals that Blue Jay blue is not really blue. Other famous blue birds such as the Eastern Bluebird (see here) and the Indigo Bunting (see here) are equally untrue in their hue. The proof is in their plume particulars.

  Color is a gift from the whole white light of the sun. White light is a combination of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo & Violet as any rainbow will tell you. All color is the result of that light reflecting back into our brains. True colors – pigments – are chemicals that selectively reflect parts of the color spectrum of light. Cardinal Red, for instance, results from a pigment that absorbs all other light waves and only reflects the red spectrum. In other words, there is an actual red “thing” embedded in those red feathers of the cardinal.

  The blue color found on birds, butterflies and beetles is the result of something called preferential scattering – not from an actual blue “thing” or pigment. Animal blue is called “structural blue.”  This means that there are micro structures in the tissue that scatter light.  There are tiny air pockets in the keratin (the fingernail like substance that feathers are made of) that scatter the blue light waves. A dark background layer absorbs the red, orange, yellow, green light rays, so all we see are the shades of blue.

  To test the structural color idea, I took that “blue” jay feather and moved it around in the sun. As long as it remained in direct light, the blue remained true and intense. When holding up the feather and looking through it toward the sun, the blue disappeared.

  I came across this picture of a Purple Emperor butterfly that neatly shows the result of structural blue.  In this view, the right wing looks bright blue because it is scattering light.  The left wing looks brown because it is angled away.  Both wings are the same actual color, brown, but it takes the magic of light to turn on the radiant blue reflection. The Blue Jay, Bluebird and Indigo Bunting all suffer the same fate in similar light conditions – they are brown.

  I feel at this point we should leave this thing well enough alone. If I go any further, I might start getting into why frogs aren’t really green. Let’s just say that blue is blue even if it it’s not ..well, true blue. Our eyes, cameras and minds record it as so. The blue of the sky, the cobalt dazzle of the bluebird, and the beautiful blue of my wife’s eyes are really blue (and there’s no way I’m going to tell her otherwise).

July 21, 2007

Both Ends of a Butterfly

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:17 pm

You could say that a story fell into my lap yesterday evening.  Well, if not exactly “fell” and not exactly into my “lap,” a freshly dead Red Admiral Butterfly offered itself to me. O.K., it didn’t technically offer itself either, but was there on the nature trail for me to discover. Its delicate wings were only slightly worn about the edges and the external body undamaged, so I took it in for a closer look.  I suspect a hungry Kingbird crushed the butterfly and accidentally dropped it – perhaps frightened by my approach.

  Earlier in the week, I had managed to sneak a close look at a Monarch Butterfly as she went about laying her eggs.  After several attempts, I managed to snap a shot of her in the act. Now I was presented with a week where I was witness to both the beginning and the end of butterfly’s life (two species, but both of the aerial butter persuasion). Here was an opportunity to pay attention to both ends of this insects life and anatomy.

  Take a look at my photo of the female Monarch laying an egg. Upon landing on the chosen milkweed leaf, she side stepped off the edge and curled the end of her abdomen around to come in contact with the underside. After a few seconds of blindly searching around with her ovipositor (egg laying organ) she placed a single egg on the leaf and promptly flew off.  She repeated this exact procedure multiple times while selecting different leaves in the milkweed bed, so I witnessed at least 10 egg placements within a few minutes. Over the course of her brief life, she will potentially lay over 300 eggs (one captive individual laid 161 in a single day).

  A little appreciated feature of this simple act is that the eggs are actually glued into place. Monarch Glue puts Gorilla Glue to shame. Take a look here to see a detailed view of a monarch egg (in actual scale they are only 1.2 mm high).  Note that there is a ring of bubbly dried glue at the base of the shell where it contacts the leaf.  As each egg travels down the ovipositor tube on the “way to the lay” it is positioned blunt end first.  It passes by a pair of glue glands where a sticky drop is neatly placed on the bottom and the package is lightly pressed into position.  The thick glue “fixes” immediately upon contact with the air, so our female is careful not to get any on her hind parts.

  Although this particular female can only expect to live a maximum of five weeks, her eggs will carry Monarch life into the following year. Held by glue and protected from weather on the underside of the leaf, the eggs need to remain in place for four days before they hatch.  These July eggs will result in hungry caterpillars and September adults that will migrate and survive into the next spring.

  From the beginning of one life out of the end of one butterfly, we now look at the beginning portion at the end of another. Any Red Admiral butterfly flying in late July should also expect to survive into the following year.  These cold hardy beasts hibernate through the winter as adults. My Admiral met a premature “end”, which led me to momentarily wonder if it was actually a “rear” Admiral (that was a small joke, by the way – usually annotated with a wink of the eye and the repetition of the words “end” and “rear” several times).  As a means of recovering from such a pitiful attempt at humor, let me state that the name of this species stems from the prominent red stripes on the upper wings. These marks faintly resemble the red chevrons found on the old naval uniforms of British Admirals.

  Take a gander at the underside of the dead Admiral’s wings in my photo for another point of view. Note the subtle orange, blue and black patterns and the micro wing scales rubbed off on my thumb. The proper way to hold a living butterfly, as well as a dead one, is to firmly grip the wings in this manner so that they don’t shift about and shed too many of their scales.  As a member of a group called the brush-footed butterflies, the Red Admiral clearly displays his set of soft bristled front feet in this view. 

  The next step in our discussion involves a pin, but not in the manner you might think. Ahead of the prominent eyes, there is a pair of fluffy face pads called palps which protect the delicate tongue which is at the leading end of all butterflies. In order to see that miraculous organ we need to gently tease it out.  Take a look at these two photos (here and here) and you can see how this is done.  The tongue is coiled up like a party favor when not in use and the prodding of the pin can be used to unroll it for full view.

  The Admiral’s tongue is nearly half the length of its body.  It is hollow down the center and engaged like a straw for sipping fluids.  Take a look at this fantastic micro view of a Monarch tongue and you can see the tubular structure.  In cross section, these tongues are actually pinched down the middle and function as side to side double straws.

  As impressive as the Admiral’s tongue is, it is fairly short when compared to other butterflies.  Longer tongued species like the Monarchs and Painted Ladies, can feed on deep tubular flowers.  Middle range straws are found on Swallowtails and Cabbage Whites for nectaring at shallow flowers.  The Short- tongued Brushfooted butterflies don’t feed at flowers.  They only need an organ long enough to lick the surface of sap flows, rotting fruit and animal poop.  Yes, the Red Admiral is a Rear Admiral after all.

  So there you have it – the story from beginning to end.

July 19, 2007

Over Easy

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:46 pm

  There is no such thing as a plain “sparrow.”  In nature, everything is specific and particular, so it should be no surprise that there are 15 different kinds of sparrows in the lower Great Lakes area. Oddly enough, this number doesn’t include the English sparrow – you know those birds that nest in the “e” at the Meijer store.  English sparrows aren’t really sparrows at all, but are weaver finches of the old world tradition.

  The Song Sparrow is a specific kind of true sparrow with a particularly nice way of phrasing things.  These small birds are typical members of a clan where the male and female look alike and both are variations of a brown and white bird. As it happens, there are a lot of potential fashion statements to make using a “brown & white” palette. The songster has some wonderful chestnut brown tinges and a heavily streaked breast with a central dark spot (take a look here). Unfortunately, brown birds don’t usually get noticed by our species and they must yield the stage to the flashy feathered flock.

  Like their kin, Song Sparrows would go on in complete anonymity were it not for their loud bubbly song. Various writers have put the verse into English as “Madge Madge put on your teakettle” but this hardly does it justice. Take a listen here at a song recording and judge for yourself.  The bird outside your backdoor will not sound exactly like this, however, because their song patterns vary widely in different parts of the country. They have dialects nearly as dramatic as the difference between a Texas twang and a nasal Canadian “put on yer teakettle, eh?”

  Song sparrow babies learn their phrasing and song bits from listening to their parents as well as eavesdropping on their neighbor sparrows. Each bird comes up with a similar, but different way of saying things than their parents. Since our children do the same, whether they will admit it or not, this should be a familiar concept (as in “let Madge get yur teakettle, dude, I’m chilling here.”).

  I am getting ahead of myself at this point, though.  You don’t have baby sparrows unless the eggs hatch properly and they won’t hatch unless mom sparrow does her job right.  Tucked neatly away in a flower bed a female Song Sparrow is in the process of doing just that right now.  She wove a neat fist-sized nest out of dead grass and elected to place it about a foot off the ground. The inside is lined with a bed of fine grasses. In this species the male does not take part in any nest building or incubating, but will re-enter the picture once the young are hatched.

  Over the course of the week, three beautiful eggs were laid in the nest and she has begun incubating them.  You’ll see the eggs in a moment, but I’d like you to see this photo of her on the nest first.  She’s tucked down and deep with her tail and head pointing up. It was difficult to get this shot because these sparrows have a habit of jumping out of the nest whenever potential danger approaches.  Like a little field mouse, she’d hop over the edge and jump down into the protection of the flowerbed.  As long as I – the dangerous one – was in the vicinity, she scurried about silently in the undergrowth. Although leaving here brood exposed like this may not strike you as motherly behavior, my close observation of the eggs proved that she was indeed doing her maternal best. 

  Each time she scurried, I was able to take a quick, but close, look at her eggs and snap a picture of them.  I did this three times over the course of the day before successfully getting her portrait while sitting on those eggs.

    The first shot (see here) reveals the three eggs I was speaking about.  They are light bluish green and only about a half inch long.  Each is speckled with a distinctive spattering of chocolate spots which grades from heavy on one end to light on the other. Note the “top” egg, which presents a fairly speckle free side with an elongated spot at top center.

  Six hours later, (see here) the skittish songster again hopped away and I decided to shoot the eggs again.  This time, I noticed the egg positions were all changed. The “top” egg had been rolled over easy about 90 degrees (look at the elongated spot), the “left” egg rolled to the right the same amount and the “right” egg completely flipped end for end.  A few hours later (see here), the “top” egg had become the “right” egg and the “right” egg the “top” egg, and the “bottom egg rotated to the left by 90 degrees.

  As part of the incubation process, our female was rotating her eggs as all good feathered moms should. This is part of the incubation process often goes un-noticed in wild birds. If you’ve ever hatched chicken eggs, the rolling thing is old hat. It is advised to rotate the eggs at least three times a day and to vary the direction of the roll. Putting a large penciled “X” on the egg allows the caretaker to keep track of the sequence.

  A female Song Sparrow instinctively keeps track of her rotation duty as faithfully as a fully powered “Turn-X Incubator.”  The question is begged as to why egg moving is necessary in the first place. It has much more merit than just evenly warming the eggs.  Rotation prevents the inner membranes from sticking to each other and stimulates the growth of those membranes, increases embryo heart rate and helps it to absorb nutrients, and facilitates the developing chick to settle into hatching position.  As non egg laying animals, we don’t think about such things. It is nice to appreciate such a small thing in a small bird on a small nest.

  It will take two weeks until the little sparrows are ready to hatch.  Mom will stick to her post with half hour snack breaks over the day and constant rotation of the eggs. I’ll keep you posted when we get a chorus line of Song Sparrows hatching out singing “Keep your Sunnyside Up.”

July 17, 2007


Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:06 pm

Spiders are certainly the subject of many human dreams, but I wonder if spiders themselves have dreams. Perhaps they would see themselves weaving a hopelessly entangled giant web or engaged in a continual search for their eighth shoe.  Screaming people or the sight of a bathtub filling up with water would certainly qualify for their nightmare fare. Among more educated spiders, however, one creature looms large as the scariest and most nightmarish of all – the Mud Dauber Wasp.  Dauberphobia is prevalent in the Arachnid set.

  There is nothing about Mud Dauber Wasps to frighten us humans.  Though these large active wasps are common around our dwellings, they are not colonial or aggressive and rarely sting.  The worst thing they do to us is to plaster mud cakes under our eaves and porches – this is more a visual nuisance than a true problem.   There are three basic kinds (Organ Pipe, Blue, and Black & Yellow), but probably the most common is the well named Black & Yellow Mud Dauber.

  I encountered a few B & W’s, as I’ll refer to them, engaged in setting up a spider nightmare the other day. Take a look at this portrait of one of these thin-waisted wasps. They are about 1 ¼ inch long and have satiny black bodies with bold yellow markings. I took this shot after inching as close as I could to these visually acute little beasts. They have excellent vision and were alarmed at my every move.  True to their nature, they never ventured to sting or act aggressive. The wasps were gathering mud from the edge of a drying pond. Once satisfied that I was nothing more than a giant rock, they would select the wettest mud and proceed to lower their jaws to the surface and gather in a few bites of the material with their mandibles (see here).  Once a tiny mud ball was firmly in grasp, they launched into the air and made a beeline – actually a waspline – to their nests.

  Sceliphion caementarium is the scientific name of this species.  The second part of the name is Latin for “mason, or builder of walls,” and these tradesmen use mud to construct walled chambers for rearing their young. The structures are placed in a weather protected space beneath an eave or rock overhang. They consist of several side by side 1 in. by ¼ in. chambers which in turn are plastered over with a rough coating of adobe to form a fist sized lump’o mud on the wall. Here’s a shot (by Margaret Jones Young) of a female in the process of building a chamber wall. Each mouthful is carefully palpitated into a rope of clay that is laid down strip by strip – something like a potter using the coil method to make a pot (not really, but that is the only analogy I can come up with).

  Akin to our whistling while we work, B & W’s have been shown to “sing” and produce a humming vibration while daubing the mud. This liquefies the material and makes it pliable. After numerous back and forth trips from the mud quarry to the building site, the wasps complete their task in relatively short order. As each chamber is completed, the empty space within elicits a shocking change in behavior.  The B & W’s become hunters – spider hunters.

  As a rule, daubers feed on plant nectar, but their sudden desire for eight-legged prey is a maternal thing. But, unlike the human mom-to-be desire for pickles and ice cream, this arachnophilia doesn’t involve actually eating spiders. The spiders are for the baby wasps. The males, by the way, stick to their nectar fare since they don’t participate in the house building or kid raising stuff.

  For the balance of the day, a female’s sole task is to track down and gather in as many spiders as it takes to fill up baby’s chamber. It takes anywhere from 6 – 25 spiders to adequately stock one larder cell. A single egg is laid on the body of the first spider crammed into the void and the whole chamber is sealed with a mud plug once the space is topped off.

  I followed the exploits of one of these huntresses to see if I could catch her in the act of nabbing a spider.  She was a gal on a mission and it was hard to keep up. Every nook, cranny, and website was browsed.  Sensing prey sealed away in a silken retreat beneath a picnic table, she launched an earnest attack to get at the occupant. I managed to take a photo of her as she attempted to flush the spider by pulling on the silk walls and poking her head into the end of the chamber. The spider was having no part of it and resisted the effort to expose herself. It is the nature of most spiders to drop out of the web or rest chamber in order to escape.  As it turned out, it was sizable orb weaver and much too large for the wasp, so she gave up after several minutes.

  I lost track of this particular female, but I know that eventually she would be successful. Oddly enough, this spider searching doesn’t result in the immediate death of the spider. The B & W stings her charges with a paralyzing dose of venom, not a lethal one. The stunned spiders are carried back to the mud chambers and packed like sardines within. When the mud door is plastered into place and total darkness envelopes the chamber, the spiders remain alive but unable to alter their fate.

  Recall that the first paralyzed spider in the mud cell was gifted with a single wasp egg.  After a few days that tiny egg hatches into a very hungry little wasp grub that begins to consume the freshly preserved spiders. The grub has no legs or eyes, but crunching mandibles equip it for the task at hand. One by one the spiders are eaten alive – slowly and inexorably.  Take a look here at a grub exposed within its chamber and this shot of a nearly full sized grub (5/8 in. long) with what remains of its paralyzed fare. By the time the last spider is polished off, the grub has reached full size and pupates before emerging as an adult wasp.  All that remains in the old chamber are the hollow dried skins of spiders.

  Such a scenario would startle even the most stalwart of sleeping spiders into a sweaty awakening. 

July 15, 2007

From Poo to Purse

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:37 am

  They are a fact of life.  It rains down from above upon our newly washed cars, lawn chairs, and occasionally on us. The “it” is bird poo – or “droppings” as they are euphemistically referred to.  Although we try to avoid looking at them or discussing them, avian poo can offer up some particularity peculiar participles of purposeful perambulation. In other words, they can lead us down a purposeful path on our peregrinations of perception. To put it simply, poo can teach.

  It is a fact of life that much of what goes into a bird must come out. As highly active warm-blooded vertebrates, birds are constantly going to the bathroom.  A small bird deposits a dropping every 30 minutes or so, while a larger crow sized bird meets nature’s call on an hourly basis.

  A close examination, provided for instance by the glorious view imparted by a large dropping on your car windshield, reveals three components to a poo packet. (Here’s a picture of a neat little purple poo packet just to remind you of what we are talking about). Birds evacuate their wastes out of a single opening called the cloaca, so everything is wrapped into one little gift. The dark portion is made up of solid waste. This is the actual feces of the species.  The off white portion is composed of Urates resulting from protein digestion and the watery part is Urine. There, now that wasn’t so bad was it?

  Just for the sake of expanding this discussion, you should be aware that there are many animals that mimic bi-colored bird droppings. They “know” that other animals tend to have the same reaction to poo as you do, so by pretending to be poo they are safe from predators. The Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar and the Pearly Wood Nymph Moth are two examples such craptic…er, I mean, cryptic coloration.

  Dried bird droppings are tough to get rid of.  It’s almost like they are sticking around and begging us to pay more attention to them. Recently, the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis detected several white spots on the leading edge of their right wing while checking for potential damage after launch. NASA determined that the mystery spots were bird poo. These droppings survived the launch procedure which includes 300,000 gallons of sprayed cooling water and a 0 to 17,500 mph in nine minute acceleration!

  While the shuttle wing deposits will burn up upon atmospheric re-entry, those on your picnic table still await your prying eyes.  O.K., let’s take a look to learn more. (If you didn’t take a look at the purple poo picture previously posted, you might want to peek posthaste.)  The cluster of droppings on my picnic table are all colored purple – like the photo example – and are the product of Robins. It is of absolutely no coincidence that the scientific name of Robin is Turdus, by the way. The robins are eating the fruit of the White Mulberries that are now ripening.

  You might want to take a minute to look at this site detailing a few facts about Mulberry trees.  The important thing to note are the clusters of fruit which look like elongated raspberries.  These are simply irresistible to the fruit eating robins, so they devour them with gusto and pass ‘em through with equal speed.  Mulberries depend upon birds such as the robin to distribute their seeds.  The quick passage through the digestive system insures a safe landing far from the parent tree.

  There are currently twelve bird droppings on my picnic table and each is loaded with tiny cream colored seeds (5 -16 seeds per). This averages about 10 seeds per dropping. Given the size of my picnic table, it looks like there are about 7 seeds per square foot. That, my friend is the reason Mulberry trees are so successful at getting around.

  Now, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, so it’s time to find the silk lining in these mulberry-stained bird droppings and get this thing done. The reason robins have Mulberries to eat is because of silk.  White Mulberries are the food plant of the oriental silkworm. The plant originates from China where silk production began thousands of years ago.

  Silkworms (take a look at one here) feed only on White Mulberry leaves.  As a domestic animal, they are fed until they reach a few inches in length.  Once at full size, the caterpillars weave a peanut shaped cocoon (see here) and pupate within.  The cocoons consist of a mile or so of continuous fine silk, so it is at this stage that they are boiled (killing the pupae, of course) and unraveled to produce commercial silk. Natural silk production is still practiced today, so silk purses are still available as far as I know.

  We have journeyed from a Monroe bird’s digestive tract to China, so I guess need to bring us back home.  Mulberries were deliberately brought to Michigan because settlers wanted to raise silkworms alongside their sows. For a brief period 1820’s – 1850’s farmers attempted to establish a silkworm industry right here on home ground. Take a look at this page from a southern Michigan farmer detailing several silkworm egg transactions. The lower entry states “Received of O. Randall said to be seventeen thousand and five hundred silkworm eggs for Esq. Beach and others. J.R. Hall.”

  The date of the above entry is July 16th, 1841 – exactly 166 years and a day ago. The silkworm experiment failed, but the Mulberry trees survived as seed escapees.  Fruit eating birds continue to spread Mulberries and therefore our windshields continue to get plastered with history.

July 12, 2007

Lov’n the Water Lily Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 pm

  After a long hot summer day, the marsh rebounds with new life. While the windy mid-day marsh is a hot bed of dragonfly activity, swaying cat-tails and blooming flowers, the setting sun prompts a change in décor and clientele. The large white flowers of the Water Lily conceal their petals and the third day blossoms are drawn back underwater. Their leathery pads seem to unfurl and relax under the caress of the gentle twilight breezes. Deprived of their solar power, Blue Dasher dragonflies retreat to nighttime shelters and yield the insect air space to the clouds of emerging caddisflies.

  Now is the time for the muskrats to venture out to do what they do best – eat.   It is no secret that muskrats get sick and tired of eating cat-tail shoots every day. They are restrained from going completely bonkers from the monotony of their diet because they have very tiny brains with little room for emotion. Cat-tails are the staff of life, but for a lowly mushrat the quality of life sometimes demands something more than quantity. The choice salad offering presented by a bed of lily pads is nothing short of heaven sent sanity.

  Seeing a muskrat rip into a lily leaf betrays this cat-tail dementia. All professional restraint is abandoned when scarfing down early summer pads. By late season, the allure will wear off, but for now the first and last thing on the menu is water lily. The leaves are right at mouth level, so it is only necessary to approach and inhale. There are different styles of consumption, however.  Some hold the leaf like a cinnamon covered Elephant Ear and take bites while rotating the edge around.  Others roll the leaf over into a taco shell and eat it like one. On this evening, I was witness to a third style akin to a contestant at a hot dog eating contest.

  I did a sketch of this gluttonous performance just to document it for the sake of posterity.  My frantic little ‘rat was rolling the leaves into a cone and literally shoving them down his throat like a tree chipper.  He took no pause in the chewing process.  Engrossed in the dining experience, he often drifted beyond vertical and leaned back in Sea Otter fashion. I’ve never seen one, but I would guess this is what an aquatic circus barker would look like while eating his bullhorn.

  Next to this display of sheer eating mastery, few could compare. Though the evening light was fading, I did spot a competitor on the lily eating stage. A rock and a head had surfaced nearby.  The head repeatedly shot out in a clumsy attempt to grab the exposed edge of a lily pad and the rock rippled the water with each effort. This new contestant was a sizable snapping turtle and the rock was his shell.

  There is probably no creature on earth less known for its plant-eating abilities than the Common Snapper. In the dimming twilight the creature was free to pursue some fresh greens without tarnishing its killer reputation.  Up to one third of this carnivorous turtle’s diet is made up of water plants. Al Capone probably ate bean sprouts, but no one – and I mean no one – would ever mention such a thing.  Here I was witnessing a rare thing indeed.

  The turtle finally nipped off a chunk of leaf after a half a dozen tries and swallowed it without fanfare. His next bite was landed with swift completion after a slow start. Not surprisingly, he looked more like his passive cousin the Box Turtle munching on a strawberry, than a flesh eating monster.

  In terms of reputation, it is equally odd to learn that Muskrats will eat flesh on occasion. Fish, baby turtles, mussels, and each other will find their way onto the menu. Tonight, the muskrat was boldly proclaiming his vegetarian side and the turtle was exercising his freedom of choice.

  I’m sure the ‘rat and the ‘snap continued their feasting into the night, but as a daytime critter I was forced to retreat from the lily loving scene with a taste for some salad.

July 10, 2007

Steward Little

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:21 pm

  As far as I know, Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben never visited “Amerika.” He was far too busy becoming the father of veterinary science and it probably took a large part of his daily life just to write out his monumental name on horse pill prescriptions. In the true tradition of 18th century medical men, he was also a naturalist.  Using specimens, the German scientist described many species of mammals from the exotic Spotted Hyena and Harp Seal to the Chital Deer and the Indian Giant Squirrel.

  When a tiny speck of a squirrel reached his desk in 1777, he looked it over and decided to call it Tamiasciurus – “the Shade-tailed Steward who takes care of provisions.” Since the specimen hailed from the Hudson’s Bay area of Nord Amerika, he gave it the species name of hudsonicus.  He dubbed it with the common name of Red Squirrel and declared “Mein Gott das iz Goot,” to his assistant, “let’s get a beer.”

  O.K., I admit that I made up that very last part just for the dramatic flare, but actually Erxleben’s squirrel doesn’t need any dramatic license to spice it up.  The Red Squirrel is a power packed mini dynamo. One of our smallest native squirrels, this sprite barely tops 12 inches in length (4 inches of which is tail). Take a look at this photo, and you’ll see why it’s called a red squirrel.  The red-brown body is accentuated by a white belly and a flashy little white eye ring. An appropriate black racing stripe divides the belly white from the red sides to add a touch of pizzazz. All this décor is usually reduced to a blur as the animal streaks about on its daily rounds.

  You will rarely see a Red Squirrel at rest, which means you rarely get a good look at one. When not engaged in gathering food, they are engaged in storing it or running about between the place where the food was and where it will be. The designation as a “caretaker of provisions” is an extremely appropriate moniker.  Red Squirrels horde pine and spruce cones (their favorite food) as well as mushrooms and walnuts. These hordes can be in the form of burrow stashes or items carefully wedged into limb crotches. Here’s a picture of a walnut stored in my front yard Holly bush. Also, I’ve seen apples stored in the same way.

  Another common sign that pointing to the presence of these Steward Littles are the distinctive feeding remains.  Look at this photo and you’ll see a Blue Spruce cone and a Walnut that have suffered the onslaught of a Red Squirrel’s incisors. The scales of Evergreen cones are systematically plucked off in order to get at the seeds – leaving only the core and a few top scales in place. Tough shelled walnuts pose another eating challenge. Lacking the heavier nipping equipment of larger squirrels, our diminutive friend has to open up four small holes to get at the nut meat chambers found within. (Big squirrels tend to leave a walnut with two large holes.)

  Yesterday afternoon, I followed – or attempted to follow – the antics of an individual Red Squirrel in my back yard.  He worked his way out on a walnut limb and cut off one of the developing green husked nuts.  With the nubile nut in his mouth, he turned and took a circuitous route though the branches. He went from limb to limb and spanned the gap between trees with effortless leaps and monkeylike precision.

  On the fifth tree over, a projecting twig caught his attention and he decided to place his find in the small angle under it.  Several unsuccessful attempts to wedge the prize into place were followed by a re-positioning of the nut and a new effort. I watched this procedure from below and thought that I was undetected.  This proved to be a faulty assumption, for suddenly the squirrel disappeared around the trunk and temporarily placed the nut in a knothole.  He swiftly returned to my side of the tree and proceeded to deliver an agitated verbal blast in my direction to tell me that my presence was not appreciated.

  In the North Country, the Red Squirrel is better known as the Chickaree.  This name literates the agitated sound made by these self sure rodents. My squirrel started his tirade in usual fashion with a series of high “Chicks” in regular sequence. Each “chick” racked his tiny body with a convulsion and changed the position of his tail. While in voice delivery mode, his front feet were not even in contact with the bark, so they were held straight out as if casting a hex upon me. Eventually, the string of “chicks” was accented by guttural “chucks” as things accelerated. Finally, all restraint lost, the creature exploded into an extended “rheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and bounded off.

  With that stream of blue air I was put into my place. The Red Squirrel may be small, but he can swear like a sailor.

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