Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 31, 2007

The Bluefoot Code

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 pm

Miss Percidae’s school class had just settled into their milfoil seats as she paddled into the room. The look on her face was gill struck and solemn as she approached the desk.  Barbell had just thrown a pea clam at Amia and feared that the teacher saw her commit the offense.  Miss Pericidae – normally “perky” Percidae to her students – was in no mood to address such nonsense. “Class,” she said, “we have a matter of great concern to address this morning.”  The bubbles trailing from her gill slits were tiny and regular.  None of the students had seen her like this before.

  “As you all know, we are approaching the time of great danger.  Now is the time for the blue raptor claw.”  The little fish suddenly giggled at the mention of this and the teacher firmly slapped her fin down.  Most of them were only small fry and had yet to experience any such danger.  The ever-present threat of Esox and Rappala were real enough, why concern yourself with something as rare as the blue claw. “This is not a joke,” she said in a tone that indicated her seriousness.  All eyes locked forward and mouths snapped shut at this statement.  She swam over to a rolled up chart suspended from the overhanging branch that formed the roof of the classroom.  With one fluid motion she grabbed the pull chord and unveiled this picture (see here).  All the fingerlings gasped and expelled a torrent of bubbles that joined together like a jellyfish bell and danced to the surface over their heads.

  Her picture was of a pair of deadly blue scaled feet equipped with sickle shaped talons.  The rough pebbly palms contrasted with the steel smooth surface of the claws. It was the blue raptor of storybook fame, but the image was frightfully clear and realistic. “This is a picture drawn by Monsieur Madtom Felis of the very claws that were seen in the water celery beds yesterday afternoon. This beast has already taken several of our cross river neighbors. Airbladder inspector Jung Sui narrowly escaped capture as he performed his duties at the swim club on Sunfishday”

   Ms. Percidae paused to allow the gravity of the situation to sink in and she was not disappointed. Everyone knew Mr. Sui. They all enjoyed his tales of pond life and his daring escape from captivity.  Unlike his fellow goldfish, he had retained his bright golden hue and quite literally stood out in a crowd.  This news was too close to home to be ignored.

“Use great caution little ones, “she continued, and keep your eyes to the skyworld. Do you remember the rules?”  Without further prompting all recited the blue foot rules in monotone preciseness: “August & September use caution and remember. From the skyworld keep you three feet and the blue feet you will not meet.”  A satisfied smile crawled across her face and she rolled the picture back into place.

  “Very good. Very good,” she cooed. “We’ll all get through this dangertime in good shape if you just keep your wits about you and stay deep. This will soon pass.” Resuming her chirping manner, she continued “Now, let’s get out our scale books and turn to the section on fin care.”

  From Ms. Percidae’s perspective on the bottom of the Detroit River Fish School, the blue claw is only a seasonal nuisance. From our perspective as shoreline and skyline observers the blue claw is much more than that. The blue foot in question is that belonging to the Osprey – the most efficient fisherman on our local waters.

  Ospreys, or fish eagles, begin their autumn migration while summer still lingers here in the lake shore country. Several are now nesting in S.E. Michigan and will soon become a regular part of our summer fauna as well. These large graceful predators are mostly white with a distinct brown eye stripe and dark brown back.  Their long pointed wings extend 4.5 to 6 foot across and are held bent at the wrist (a crucial identification feature).  There are many other features to explore on this bird, but since Ms. Percidae brought it up, perhaps those blue feet are the most impressive.  Take another look at the drawing (I am M. Madtom) and re-examine those incredible appendages.

  Although ospreys will take small mammals, birds and reptiles in a pinch, they are pretty much fish specialists. Their sleek talons are the largest among North American predatory birds and the rough palms provide a sure grip on slimy prey. Of course we already discussed that in the classroom earlier. What we didn’t talk about, however, are the steps taken by the bird in the moments leading up to the fish grab.

  The prey is spotted from high above as the bird slowly circles over the water surface.  Take a look at this picture and you’ll get an appreciation for the huge eyes on these pisciverous birds.  Once a fish is spotted by those jeepers peepers, ospreys have the ability to hover in place until the scaled target is pin-pointed and the calculations are made for a dive.

  The dive itself is a sight to behold. With wings tucked, the osprey plummets like a stone. At the last second before impacting the water the feet are brought forward to hit first.  The inside toe of each foot is reversible, so it can be brought back to form the foot into an “X” pattern for maximum coverage on the prey. It has been estimated that these birds hit the water at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.  The eyes and nostrils close on impact and the momentum carries the bird well below the surface where it takes hold of the fish.  Once locked on, it takes great strength to break free with labored wing beats and pull the catch up out of the water.  In flight, ospreys always re-position their prey to face head first and gingerly manipulate it while gaining altitude.

  There are several factors in favor of the fish in any potential interaction with fish eagles.  First of all, the element of depth is crucial – usually fish are taken only within three feet of the water surface (remember the blue foot code?).  Secondly, brightly colored fish are easier to spot than darker ones.  This is why Mr. Sui was targeted.  Wild lake goldfish normally turn greenish brown like their carp relatives, but some retain their bright hues and pay the price.

 The last consideration concerns accuracy.  In the world of predatory animals, their rate of success is usually pretty low.  When you see that lion chase down and tackle a gazelle on the Discovery Channel you are privy to the benefits of editing.  The feline attempted the same feat at least a dozen times before finally achieving a meal. The same is true of predatory birds.  Osprey catch vs. dive studies have shown the birds to be successful about 40% of the time -which is much higher than most. At least one study revealed a 90% accuracy rate, but that is equivalent to a no-hitter in baseball.  For the most part, the fish get away to live another day, but either way that’s quite a feat!

August 29, 2007

Ghost Image

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:29 pm

  I came upon a statement – I think it was one of those Wikipedia gems – that said scientists estimate there are some 1.5 million species of fungus out there but only 70,000 of them have been officially discovered.  That means something like 80% of the known fungi in the world are unknown.  How can anyone know what we don’t know? If we state something, even as an estimate, then it becomes something we pretty much know, right? Confused?  So am I!  It is better to simply state the plain simple fact that fungi own the planet and we will never know how many there aren’t, er….I mean are.

  I have long known that saprobic mycelium have integrated every inch of my yard, but could not possibly guess how many of them I don’t know. Saprobic means something that derives nutrients from the dead remains of others and mycelium are the fibrous growth tissues of the fungus clan. There are shelf fungus, puffballs, and death angels to represent the known fungi that inhabit my corner of the world.  They feed off of decaying leaves, roots and wood. As mushrooms, all of these things live as clusters of obscure thready mycelium in the soil or rotted wood.  Once a year they decide to erupt out of the ground as fruiting bodies that we recognize as a mushroom or toadstool.  The above ground “mushroom” portion is like the flower portion of a geranium with the rest of the geranium hidden underground.

  One of my previously unknown fungal yard residents popped into view last week.  A cluster of coral red and pumpkin orange mushrooms appeared overnight under one of my maple trees. Take a look at them here and here and I think you’ll agree that they were worthy of notice. I’ve never seen them before in my yard or anyplace else for that matter.  This was a good opportunity to go through the proper steps of mushroom identification and see if I could reduce them to a select group of known fungi. 

  Mushroom identification can be a tricky business – made even riskier by the fact that people like to eat mushrooms. As culinary representatives of the fungal kind they can range from extremely edible to extremely toxic.  Although I recommend sticking to morels and puffballs as food and leaving the rest alone, your choice may be different.  Having no intention of eating my mystery mushrooms or testing their hallucinogenic properties, I resorted to sheer knowledge for the sake of knowledge and noted several features. 

  In this day and age, we can Google anything and bypass the technical manuals.  I typed in “red mushrooms” and looked over a plethora of pretty pictures offered on the screen.  There are a lot of red mushrooms in this world, but believe it or not I came to an answer within a fairly short time with this hit or miss effort. In order to make the final determination, however, I had to look under the mushroom hood for starters.

  The underside portion of the ‘shroom will be either “gilled” or “pored.”  Take a look at this picture and you’ll see the underside of one of one of my yard ornaments. This one is a good example of a “gilled mushroom” where the bottom side looks like so many fish gills (the pored ones have a solid surface with thousands of tiny holes or pores). I could therefore limit my search to gilled mushrooms, which brought things down to a comfortable half a million kinds.

  Noting the firm surface, general shape (in this case cone-like), and general tendency of the older caps to turn black and oily put me into a group called the Waxy Caps.  From there it was a process of elimination to arrive at one type called the Witches Hat, because they are the only waxy caps that turn black when bruised.  If they turned black and blue, that would be a different beast entirely, by the way.

  At this point I was happy with calling them Witches Hats (Hygrocybe conica). That is a wonderfully descriptive common and scientific name. They indeed look like the conical leading edge of a curious witch poking out of the ground. I did have one more thing to do in order to put these into the select group of 70,000, however.

  If you are curious about other features of the Witches Hat, including the debate about whether they are edible or not, check out MushroomExpert.Com for some browsing.  This is a great site with some entertaining writing for all levels of interest.  At the bottom of each page of mushroom descriptions you will see a reference to something called a spore print.  In the case of the Witches Hat, the print is supposed to be white.

  Making a spore print is a frightfully easy thing to do.  Take your mushroom cap, cut it in half and lay one half on a white sheet of paper and the other on a dark sheet. Place the parts gill side down so that the magic can occur.  Put a cup over each half while placing your finger on your nose and dancing a jig. O.K., forget the jig and just let things sit for 12 hours.

  The mushroom gills shed millions of microscopic spores into the atmosphere.  This is their whole purpose in life. By blocking off the air flow with the cup, the spores are allowed to drop straight down and coat the paper below it. After a day and a night the spores will leave a distinct pattern and color. Dark spores will show on the white paper and light spores on the dark paper (I’ll bet you really needed me to tell you that didn’t you?). In my case I didn’t bother with the white paper because I had a reasonable assumption that things would turn out all white.

  Well, after dancing the jig until I was exhausted and occupying myself with other activities for the remaining 11 hours and 59 minutes, I lifted the cup off my Cap.  Voila – a white spore print (take a look here).  The resulting print was an appropriately ghostly image for a bewitching mushroom.

August 27, 2007

A Snug Litttle Bug

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:41 pm

Milkweeds seldom fail to provide the curious naturalist with something to investigate. On this morning I stopped by the patch to see what was going on. One plant was host to a large cluster of immature Small Milkweed Bugs (that’s the species name and not just a gratuitous adjective). My attention was drawn to a singular “pup” perched on the stem apart from the others. The morning sun illuminated his gold and red body and set it aglow like a gummy worm.  This youthful bug was so thoroughly engaged in his meal that my intrusion went largely unnoticed. Fortunately I was able to capture his likeness with my camera without disrupting the peaceful scene and I left things as I found them. Take a look at my photo here.

  Such a lack of attention might have resulted in death for any other insect.  I could have been a predator and was only inches away, after all. Milkweed bugs, as it turns out, are not bothered by such petty concerns.  Along with the nutritious milkweed tissue, the glowing pup was adding the plant’s cocktail of cardiac glycosides to its own defense system. Even small Small Milkweed Bugs, have enough toxic chemicals coursing through their blood to sicken even the most persistent of attackers.  Such knowledge could lead to a laissez-faire attitude about life, but these crimson insects take life very seriously.

  As might be expected, the fact that there are Small Milkweed Bugs would insinuate that there are large ones out there as well.  Indeed that is the case.  There are several other kinds in-between. Large, small or middling, all milkweed bugs share something in common – they feed exclusively on milkweeds, are mostly red, and all suck life through a straw.

  When our little guy grows up, he’ll have a full set of half wings.  As a member of the group of insects called “True Bugs,” his order name is Hemiptera which means “half wing.”  Actually the wings are divided into a hard inner portion and a soft membranous outer portion, thus the name. An adult Small Milkweed Bug is defined by a red “X” in the middle of the back as well as a purple heart with black highlights (take a look here). By this definition, I guess this next picture could be considered X rated in that is shows several of these X-bugs mating (they join end to end for hours at a time).

  Some of you might see a resemblance to the ubiquitous Box Elder Bug, but those cousins don’t have the X pattern (they have a red chevron instead) nor are they found on milkweed.  Being in the same order as their milkweed imbibing brethren, however, they share the sucking mouthpart trait.   Out little bug pup (you might want to take another look here) was captured in the act of injecting his feeding straw, or proboscis, into the Milkweed stem.  He’s demonstrating a remarkable little mechanism.  Rather than being stiff like a drinking straw, it is extremely flexible. In detail it looks more like a dryer hose than a straw (see this micro image- look at the second picture down).  The delicate hose is protected within a two parted sheath composed of stylets.  The stylets do the actual piercing of the hard plant tissue like a drill point and create an opening for the proboscis to follow.  In the picture you can see that a portion of the stylet tube is bent back to expose the proboscis – which looks like a hair coming down from the head. What you don’t see is that the insect injects spit into the plant to predigest the tissue before sucking it up in the straw.  Kids don’t do this at home.

  Throughout its one month growth stage, the baby bug will shed its skin five times.  Each shed will increase the body and wing size until the half wing becomes a whole half (what?).  The overall red and black coloration will be constant regardless of size.  Red and black are the required dress colors for all insects that feed at the Café du Milkweed.   Milkweed beetles and Monarch butterflies share the same design as the bug. This is kinda like getting the T-shirt for your favorite restaurant, except that it basically means “Don’t eat here.”  Such a color code warns potential predators to stay away and can be considered as a public service message akin to the skull and cross bones labels on our poison jars. Eating a critter bearing the mark of the milkweed will lead to dire consequences, so don’t bother.

  Feed on little one – may the glycosides be with you. 

August 25, 2007

There’s Goatsuckers Up There!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:25 pm

    Although country bird watching is usually more productive than city bird watching, I always keep my eyes peeled for feathered fauna when “in town” (the big town of Monroe, that is). When looking for something other than those of pigeon, starling or house sparrow persuasion, the trick is to keep looking up.  Look up into the morning sky and purple martins and ring-billed gulls will be there, look up in the mid afternoon airspace and you’ll be sure to spot chimney swifts twittering about. In fact, it’s not uncommon these days to see a bald eagle following the route of the River Raisin as it courses through our little ‘burg. The evening sky offers all of the above plus one more – the Common Nighthawk. 

  A pair of these graceful flyers greeted my skyward glance as I exited from choir practice at St. Joe’s church earlier in the week. It was about 8 pm and the evening sky was glowing a gentle blue against the dark silhouette of the bell tower. The pair was swooping down through a cloud of insects that had gathered over the air space above the still warm parking lot. This was their prime feeding time and the cityscape skyline their adopted turf.

  Despite their name, Nighthawks are crepuscular creatures who prefer the dim light of late evening and early morning as opposed to night. Their familiar forms are easy to identify as they loop and twirl through the air.  Dark and stub-headed, their long pointed wings (about 24 inches from tip to tip) are each marked with a clear white band.  A white chevron at the throat points the way to final identification.  Take a look at this fine web site to look at some great detail photos of this bird.  When at rest, they blend into their chosen background thanks to their mottled gray, brown and black feather wrap, so don’t bother seeking them out when the sun’s up.

  I usually end up gravitating to scientific names, and I think you’ll agree that this one has a nice one: Chordeiles minor. In rough translation this means “little stringed instrument of the evening.” How the Nighthawk Nome de plume got applied is questionable.  Indeed they tend to fly when things are getting night like, but have no resemblance to a hawk whatsoever. I suppose they are falcon-like with those swept back wings, but come on. The instrumental reference is apt because they frequently let out twangy “Peent” calls and execute impressive courtship dives that end in an harmonic “knee-ow” chord. Sounds emanated from the end of a dive are the product of wind rushing over the stiff wing primaries.  The resulting vibration is more comparable to the sound physics of a woodwind instrument as opposed to a string instrument, but let’s not get picky.  In some parts, the common name of Nightjar is applied to account for the jarring night sound, I guess.

  To put things into perspective, the hawk name thing is nothing compared to the ancient, though mistaken, belief that these birds were milk drinkers.  Nighthawks are members of a family called the Caprimulgidae, or Goat Suckers.  At some time in the misty past, farmers looking to blame someone for the poor milk production of their goats picked these birds as scapegoats.  The farmers were well aware of the fact that nighthawks and their kin have tiny beaks and cavernous mouths, but unaware that they use this mouth as a scoop for gathering in flying insects. Their un-natural conclusion was, therefore, that such a mouth was best suited for attaching to goat udders and sucking the poor things dry. The “capra” (goat) “mulago” (to milk) name still sticks today to all members of the Nighthawk clan, despite the silliness of its origin.

  The fact is that Nighthawks are superb insect catchers.  Why suck on a goat when you can feast on over 50 species of insects?  One Massachusetts bird was examined and found to have over 500 mosquitoes in its belly.  I don’t know who counted all those half digested little bloodsuckers, but my hat goes off to them for setting the record straight.  Goatsuckers are bug zappers extraordinaire.

  Fortunately for us, nighthawks find the flat-roofed urban landscape a perfect match for their nesting habits. They prefer open gravel roofs as nest sights.  As roof dwellers, nighthawks occasionally find themselves in a nesting situation that’s a little too hot for their taste.  To remedy this, the big mouth birds will scoop up eggs or young and fly them to a new location. I vividly recall being egged by one of these birds some 30 years ago as it dipped down close to my car windshield and dropped its cargo. It apparently was frightened by the close encounter. I only saw the egg carrier illuminated in my headlights for a brief moment, but was able to identify the egg shell after the fact.

    Your opportunities for observing Nighthawks is both waning and increasing. They begin to migrate south as early as late August and will disappear from our evening skies within the month. The fall migration, however, often provides a spectacle of hundreds of these birds passing overhead in huge flocks of up to a 1,000 individuals. 

  Ten years before the egging incident, I vividly recall seeing such a congregation coursing overhead on a late summer day.  The sky was full of nighthawks all heading to South America. In my youthful way I exclaimed “look at all those suckers!”  I guess I wasn’t too far off the semantic path, was I?

August 23, 2007

Life Lines

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:42 pm


  Human beings are one of the few earthlings that are capable of recording their whole life stories with the written line.  The world would be a poorer place indeed without the autobiographies of folks such as U.S. Grant, but even the truly great tend to leave out the bad parts.  There are some among us that do reveal their entire legacy complete with all the blemishes and the scars.  These honest types admittedly don’t have much to tell, but then again neither do all the neophyte presidential candidates either. Our singular writers live out most of their life in-between the layers of a single leaf so are quite small – minuscule would be the word- and very easily overlooked.  I’m talking about tiny moths called Leaf Miners and their life story is a scar.

    You may have come across their writings before, but passed them over as some sort of undecipherable foreign script.  Leaf miners spend their entire larval life feeding on leaf tissue. The course of their development is recorded as a wiggly permanent scar on the home leaf (take a look here and  here.)   That life may only be a month long, so the story is simple. It seems more complicated because several leaf miners are writing at once and their life lines intersect. Try to pick out one of the continuous lines and mentally separate it from the others (think of this as an exercise in concentration).

   You’ll note that the wandering lines are graduated from a very thin trail to a wider road that ends abruptly. These trails are the feeding tunnels excavated by the growing moth caterpillar.  We see them because the larvae eat all the green inner portion of the leaf and leave the transparent top and bottom layers intact.  A leaf is an energy factory composed of a glass ceiling and floor.  All the machinery is sandwiched in the middle.  As the miner moth young eat the machinery, only the transparent outer layers remain. 

  The very thin lines indicate the early stages when the mini moth larva is just starting out.  As the larva grows, so does the diameter of the tunnel that it excavates. This part should be very understandable since the diameter of our pant openings increase as we grow as well. 

  A closer examination of a miner tunnel reveals a line of debris down the middle. These are the droppings.  Essentially, what goes in at one end is deposited out the other.  This is one of the reasons that leaf miners don’t double back on themselves – that would be like us jumping into the latrine (let’s leave that one behind shall we).

  I took the time to measure one the life line trails on the larger leaf shown in the second picture.  This leaf is from an Evening Primrose, by the way.  From birth to the final act, this particular miner journeyed eight inches.  He started down the main rib and looped back along the outer edge.  I suppose it could have been a she, but either way the trail ends at the glass ceiling. Once satisfied that it is going to get as fat as it will ever be (a feat taking only a week or two), our larvae ate out a chamber and disrobed. Underneath that last layer of caterpillar skin was a pupae and the third stage in a four stage life.

  Within the pupae, the leaf miner larva is undergoes some re-wiring to become a winged adult. It converts chewing mouthparts into sucking ones and sprouts wings in place of walkers. Take a look here to see the location of the pupae at the end of the tunnel and here to see two of the tiny pupae themselves. After a few weeks, the adult moth will emerge and punch its head through the glass ceiling.  It will seek out other miner moths and the whole process will begin anew. There can be several generations per summer, with the last one staying with the leaf as it falls and overwinters on the ground. 

  I wish I could show you a portrait of the actual adult moth responsible for this life story, but here the story becomes hard to follow. There is no one moth called the “Leaf Miner Moth” – there are dozens, probably hundreds.  Finding the identity of any single one is difficult.  Because they are so small (members of a group called Micro Moths), no one pays much attention to them. There are very few human produced lines written about them. Actually, they are quite a delicate and jewel-like bunch. Here’s a nice portrait of a typical leaf miner moth.  They seem to stand tall as adults and characteristically prop themselves up on their front legs as if to say “I matter.”

  The minor miner does matter.  Time spent reading their life story is time well spent.

August 21, 2007

To Kill a Cricket

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:20 pm

There is nothing as potentially soothing as the sound of a male field cricket chirping away on a late August morning. Such a sound speaks of the fullness of summer and beckons the approach of the harvest season.  Joined by hundreds of his fellow crickets in song, the merry chorus harkens the females out from under bark & stone. To them it is the song of love and to us music for the soul.

  At this very moment, however, the call of a particular field cricket is eliciting the complete opposite reaction in this human soul. He is driving me over the cliff and into the realm of insanity. From behind the Pepsi machine in the large hollow lobby outside my office, this overzealous insect is making a bid for the record books.  “Most non-stop, annoying, repetitious calls by a Field Cricket,” would be the category.  I am approaching my own record of “most futile attempts by a higher vertebrate to silence a lowly loquacious arthropod.” 

  The Don Juan crooner cricket is firmly ensconced under or behind the behemoth soda machine.  He is deep within his cave like space and out of flashlight sight, so I can’t reach him. Yelling “shut up” has no effect.  Yelling “Please, shut up” is equally ineffective. A repeated bang on the machine only increases his tempo. Banging, shaking and kicking the machine while screaming “shut the heck up” only convinces him to skip a few beats.

  I am not going to throw my back out trying to tip the Pepsi Provider. One of those safety warning stickers on the side panel graphically warns potential offenders of the consequences of such an action. It shows a red circle, with a line through it, over a depiction of a stick man falling back and a silhouette of a pop machine coming down to crush him. There is another detail on this label that I never noticed until today. It shows a tiny stick cricket figure jumping away from the overturned machine. There is another more intimidating label under that cartoon death label. It clearly states that any tampering with this machine is a felony punishable by death.  Short of entering the legal or the health care system, there must be some way to stop the racket issuing from below.

  To be fair about it, the offender belongs outside – he is a Field Cricket after all – and he’s just doing what he’s wired to do. Fall Field Crickets, those big black shiny ones, are born in the spring and don’t start calling until mid-summer. They then call until the autumn frosts put an end to their lives – like a one ton pop machine falling from above. He’s only got three months to live, so it’s time to party like its 1999. 

  According to the books, the average call rate for this species is about once a second. They emit their symphony at about a 5 kHz range – that’s kilohertz (as in Kill–O–Hurts). My tormentor is currently calling at a rate of 48 chirps per 15 seconds. That’s about three chirps per second and a call to my inner psyche to kill and hurt the guilty party. Think about it, that’s 192 chirps per minute or approximately 17,280 calls over the last hour and a half.  At this rate, the killing frost will be here the day after tomorrow.  I will not wait for the killing frost to do the duty. I’m thinking about just pulling off a leg or something.

  According to the good book, “God made everything that creepeth upon the earth,” and both the cricket and I qualify under that rule. I’m thinking that it might be alright for me to act as an agent of God and smite him -just this once. 

  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love crickets.  I have two captive individuals at home as I write.  Take a moment to look at them. The first is a female (see here). You can tell by the long spear-like thing coming out of her abdomen.  This is the long needle, called an ovipositor, which she uses for injecting her eggs deep into the ground. Before you switch over to the next picture, note that her wings are fairly short and rather plain looking. Yes, that is a leash attached to her – I use this technique when doing nature programs (it allows me to take her out of the jar and hop her around). Now take a look at the other cricket.  He is a male.  Like all guys he has a big head, lacks the ovipositor, and probably doesn’t cry at movies.  Take a good close look at his wings and note how wrinkled they are. These are the instruments of cricket song.

  My home cricket calls on occasion, but not to excess.  His tonal qualities are soothing.  The Pepsi cricket is using these same instruments as torture devices. Even though I can’t see him do it, I know he is holding up his wings at a 45 degree angle and rubbing one against the other. There is a file-like rasp on one wing which is rubbed by a scraper, or plectrum, on the other. As the scraper and rasp are engaged, their vibrations are amplified by the adjacent portions of the wing called the mirror and harp (you can see these large amplifiers as the large smoother parts of the wing).

  All of this is going on so fast that the scraper is engaging 4,000 “file” teeth per second.  Another thing that I can be sure of is that the unseen cricket is right handed – or right winged, if you were.  Only 5% of Field Crickets have left wing tendencies.  I am referring to the overlap of the wing and not liberal or conservative political views. The right wing nearly always overlaps the left. So, all I have to do is pull off one of his wings to silence him forever.  Shall it be the right or the left? I realize that all of this is moot because I can’t get at him – period.

  There is only one more thing to do: let physiology take its course and get ear plugs.

    O.K., I guess I need to explain something else here. The metabolism of cold blooded critters, like crickets, increases with the ambient air temperature.  The warmer it gets, the warmer they get.  If they are calling insects, like crickets, the warmer they get the faster they call.  This Pepsi cricket has inadvertently stumbled into a situation where the ambient temperature is far above normal. Our air conditioning is out and the inside temperature is hovering at 80 degrees. Plus, the pop machine compressor motor is generating copious amounts of heat in order to keep things cold. So, deep within his man cave, Mr. Cricket is probably subjected to temperatures approaching 100 degrees or more.  He’s like the fat guy on a treadmill accidentally set at sprint speed. He’ll blow up soon. The question is- will I blow up before he does?

  After two solid hours, God did steppeth in and silence the beast and his physiology. I know he didn’t smite it, but the offender was quiet the rest of the day and I was able to return to my sanity. Tomorrow is another day.

August 19, 2007

Notice the Lotus

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:57 am

  There’s nothing not to like about the American Lotus. It comes from a noble line of flowers that have inspired the imaginations and palettes of people throughout the world. If you are among those who have experienced the lotus this season, you know what I am talking about.  If you are currently sans your lotus moment, then perhaps I can be of assistance.\

  Normally I might attempt to prompt you into action by saying “Hurry, offer ends soon,” or “Get yours while supplies last – operators are standing by.” The fact is that the offer stands throughout the remainder of August and well into September, so there’s no rush. The lotus is a patient plant that takes it’s time budding, blooming and beckoning and is unique in the plant world for having such an extended season (mid July to mid September). In other words, it fits our modern day schedules.  I’ll introduce it to you here, but my true intention is to get you out to one of the region’s lotus beds for a first hand view.

  Extreme S.E. Michigan is fortunate enough to be within the range of this water plant, although we just barely make it. The center of the population is in the eastern U.S. from the Mississippi over to the Atlantic coast.  It requires shallow lake and river bays, so our lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie shore marshes provide for just such a need.  Unfortunately, the combination of being on the edge of existence here and choosing our most endangered habitat as a home, the lotus is listed as a threatened species in Michigan. You can’t pick it, but you can feast your eyes on it.

  Upon first inspection of an American Lotus bed, your first reaction is bound to be “holy cow” – or something like that. The huge leaves, some reaching three feet in diameter, tower above the water surface.  Equally as impressive are the hand sized flowers rising up on their own stalks. Take a look at a typical leaf and flower here.

  Each concave leaf is supported by a stout central stalk (see here). They worship the sky world with a deep green demeanor.  Rain drops collect in the center (see here) and form quick silver pools that roll about in the wind and are eventually tossed overboard.  Water does not cling to the surface due to thousands of tiny repellant hairs.  Swirling a bead of water around inside of a leaf, like a 49er panning for gold, will become one of your favorite seasonal task once you try it.

  Of course, the leaf is not there just for your entertainment.  It serves to collect energy from the sun and send it down to the stem, or tuber, deep within the mud. Air and gas transfer is important to a water plant, so these stems also act as straws.  Take a look at this cross section and you’ll see the neat arrangement of air tubes that begin in the leaf veins and continue down all the way into the tuber. I suppose you could say these are something like breathing tubes. This is not entirely accurate, but what the heck.

  Deep yellow when growing in the Deep South, our northern version of the lotus tends toward a yellow blushed white when producing flower petals. The flower bud is magnificant in and of itself (see here). , but the secret to this flower is the salt shaker thingy that projects out of the middle (look here) when it opens. This is the female portion (called the pistillate structure) where the seeds develop. Surrounding it are the anthers.  These particular anthers have already done their manly duty of producing pollen and are now laying back.  Soon they will fall off, as will the petals and sepals (the petal-like leaves backing the flower) and the pistil will be left alone to do her thing. 

  The final result of all this blooming is a shower head (see here).  Right now, the seed heads are developing their crop of acorn-sized seeds and over the course of the month will expand into flat topped cones replete with lunar craters. By the end of the season in late fall, these are all that will remain. They will break off and float flat side down to distribute their cargo over the marshy bottom.

  I alluded earlier to the fact that the American Lotus is part of a noble line of worldwide distribution and tastes. Our native lotus is pompously referred to as Nelumbo lutea. The “lutea” part refers to the yellow color.  “Nelumbo” is a Ceylonese word for – you guessed it – “Lotus.” You can call our native born product Yellow Lotus, Water Acorn, Water Chinquapin or Alligator Button, but there’s no denying its global family. There are a host of Asiatic lotuses that are nearly identical to our American form.

  In Asian cultures, the lotus is appreciated at many levels.  Every portion of the plant is eaten.  The tubers, or roots as they are called, are a basic dish in China and Japan (see here – and note the air passages that mimic those found on the stems).  They are usually fried or used as a primary ingredient in soup. The seeds are especially popular in southern China where they are roasted, boiled and converted to flour. Leaves serve as flavoring and wrappers for rice dishes (here are some for sale in a market). Even lotus stems and the dried flowers make their way into salads and onto plates next to steaming Mandarin Duck.

  Presently, you can do none of the above with our American Lotus, because it is protected.  Fortunately, there are plenty of Asiatic Lotus products out there to satisfy the culinary urges. American Indians have long used the lotus, however. From cutting and drying the roots for winter use, to roasting the seeds and pounding them into a sweet meal, this resource was not over looked.  I’m sure more than a few rattling seed heads were used by native children as playthings.

  It is an interesting aside to note that some thinkers believe that the northern and eastern distribution of the American Lotus is a product of prehistoric people to begin with. Natives may have brought lotus seeds and tubers with them to plant as a food resource – long before the advent of corn culture. Any way you look at it, people and lotuses are linked by a rich past and a promising future.

  Now, the choice is yours. If you’d like to see an American Lotus patch for yourself, travel over to Lake Erie Metropark or go to the end of Dunbar Road for a visual feast. There are no operators standing by, but I’m here if you’d like further directions.  Before you go, take a look at my Monet (or are it Renoir?) inspired view of a lotus bed for a little, well,……… inspiration.


August 16, 2007

A Maple Leaf Mosaic

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:16 pm

  I stumbled upon a beautiful leaf the other day. It journeyed to earth from high atop one of my Red Maples.  In a summer world still dominated by green, such a brightly hued leaf stands out as a veritable mosaic of texture and color.

  Take a look here, and you’ll see a spent Red Maple leaf exhibiting glowing green, luminous yellow, intense red and a liberal coating of jet black grape nuts. It’s a work of art in itself and so by definition doesn’t really need analysis to illicit appreciation. However, knowing that Vincent Van Gogh liberated one of his ears and that Beethoven was deaf, lends a fuller appreciation of their art, so it’s worth a try to see what’s behind this particular heaven sent work.

  At the beginning of the summer, this leaf was no doubt performing its primary duty as a food maker. The combined stresses of high heat and an extended dry period in early August prompted the mother tree to resort to a coping action. The minor leaves were shed to conserve energy and water.  A corky layer formed at the connecting point of the leaf stem and the pipeline to the rest of the tree was cut off. Strangled into retirement, the leaf was released several months ahead of schedule.

  A small essence of life blood still remains in the fallen worker.  Chlorophyll, contained in cells called Chloroplasts, still radiate green light from the areas around the supportive veins.  The veins are the mini pipelines that supplied and drained the leaf, so the green cells cling to them like cottonwoods to a desert river. Chlorophyll is the magic substance that is responsible for converting the sun’s energy into food.  It absorbs light in the red & violet spectrum and reflects the yellow and blue components.

  Once a leaf dies, the chlorophyll quickly breaks down and the leaf is forced to reveal another important set of pigments called Carotenoids.  These are the bright reds and yellows which give the leaf its eye-catching quality. They were there all along, but were masked by the overwhelming green pigment. Because they reflect yellows and reds, Carotenoids are able to absorb the blue spectrum light and help the chloroplasts make maximum use of the sunlight hitting the leaf.  These colors certainly lent more than mere beauty to the tree that once employed them.

  What then is there to say about that grape nut coating?  These are galls – hundreds of tiny galls created by creatures called Eriophyid Mites.  Here’s a real close up view of one, but suffice it to say they look like carrots with four legs. Earlier in the season scores of these miniscule mites crept out from their over wintering spots within the tree bark and made their way to the growing leaves.  The mighty mini mites wasted no time and immediately plunged their tiny straw mouthparts into the leaf and began sucking the plant juice.  The leaf reacted to this attack by forming a chamber around each mite. 

  By the time the season progressed, our leaf was heavily infested.  The grape nut chambers created by the interaction of this mite and the leaf are called Maple Bladder Galls.  The chambers are hollow and several generations of mites used them as sheltered feeding rooms. Take a look at this cross section to reveal a few of them at work.

  Early on, the bladder galls were pink and later graduated to a deep red color.  At the end of the cycle, they become black and the mites migrate to greener pastures. Those galls on our mosaic leaf were miteless by the time they came to our attention.   Oddly enough, bladder galls do not damage the trees and are considered little more than nuisance pests.

  In the big picture, the gall mites simply provided us with a texture to go along with the colorful palette on this leaf of art.  I think you’ll agree that the close-up view, complete with its chemical light show and galling detail, was equally as stunning.

August 14, 2007

A Dangling Dagger

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:35 pm

  You’d think your own back yard would be safe.  Our family eats outside as much as we can in order to enjoy the late afternoon shade and talk about the day.  The last thing you’d expect to discover is that a dagger has been hanging over our heads for the last few weeks. Yes, like the very sword of Damocles itself, a large American Dagger was positioned a mere ten feet above us – a gust of wind could have sent it plummeting down upon us at any moment. Fortunately I was able to detect it before anything unfortunate happened.

  The moment of discovery occurred when I discovered a pile of grenades on our picnic table.  I knew you wouldn’t believe me, so I snapped a shot of them here for your perusal. There were dozens of them. Grenades can only mean one thing – a hairy cat is lurking about in the leaves above.  Our table is positioned under a spreading Red Maple tree. I searched the green canopy directly over the pile of ordnance for any sign of the culprit. This is what I found (see here).  It was an American Dagger Moth Caterpillar. 

  The poopertrator was revealed by it’s droppings on the table. My overly dramatic introduction to it might have been a bit misleading, but there are many elements of truth in it.  For instance, take the “Hairy Cat” part.  The Dagger Moth caterpillar is a great example of its type. The specific name for a butterfly or moth larvae comes from the old French word “catepelose” – literally “hairy she cat.”  Whether it’s a hairy he-cat or she-cat doesn’t really matter, the name got morphed into caterpillar.

  Take another look at the Dagger Caterpillar and you’ll definitely see it’s a hairy thing.  Technically only mammals (like she-cats) can have hair, so the hair-like things on caterpillars are called “setae.”  This fuzzy larvae even takes things one step further by possessing a few lashes.  You’ll note that there are several pairs of luxurious black lashes projecting out from the light yellow fur – two right behind the head, two more a few segments down and a cluster on the eighth segment just in front of the grenade launcher.

  The grenade reference is an apt description of the droppings of this cat.  In case you haven’t seen one, take a look here at a few relic World War Two shrapnel grenades. While the real devices are deadly and 4 inches long, the droppings are harmless and only ¼” long.  They consist of tightly packed leaf wastes, thus the army green shade, and the bumpy ridges result from folds in the animal’s intestines. I used to describe these as looking like those Root Beer Barrel candies, but grew tired of adding that they don’t taste the same. Now I just use the grenade analogy.

  This individual is about as big as he’s going to get – about three inches.  Soon he’ll climb down from his lofty perch, crawl under a board and weave a cocoon.  He’ll shed his fine yellow fur and lashes and incorporate them into his spinning work.  Underneath all those setae, by the way, the caterpillar is bright green. Pupation follows and a long winter rest is followed by the emergence of the adult moth next summer (it looks like this).  There is a dark dagger mark on the fore wing of the moth that lends the name to this group of night flyers.

  The “J” shaped pose exhibited in the photo is both a defensive and a resting position.  As the picture was snapped, it assumed a defensive mode because I jostled the branch (actually my son did, but that’s another story).  After taking the portrait, I let the branch swing back up into place and elected to observe the leaf muncher for a while. It resumed feeding for a few minutes before launching into a ten minute search for a fresh cluster of leaves.  Arriving at the fresh fare, the Dagger assumed this same position and I re-positioned our picnic table under it to collect more grenades (my patient wife was not as shocked by this as you might think).

  Unfortunately, the caterpillar stayed fixed in that pose for almost 8 hours, so I couldn’t gather any more “samples.”  It slept through the heat of the afternoon and didn’t become active again until 9:00 pm.  Come to think of it, this is what real cats do as well.

  There’s a real good chance you’ll see one of these insects in the coming weeks, since they feed on your common yard trees.  Keep your eye peeled for their poo and prepare to perceive this pelose ‘pillar.

August 12, 2007

Freckle Face Katy

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:24 am

You’ve probably noticed that these late summer nights are getting noisy.  No, I don’t mean the party crowd down the street or the increased train traffic- I am referring to the assemblage of vociferous insects that are rocking the night.  Nature’s songsters, mostly in the form of crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, and cicadas are at their musical peak in August & September.  They are all coming of age right now and trumpeting their new found voices.

  I’d like to introduce you to one of these musicians. He just happened to drop in the other day, literally falling on top of my head.  It was a young Greater Anglewing Katydid.  He represents one of many species of Katydids in our area. This group of insects is more often heard than seen, so it is a treat to see one up close. Take a look at this individual and you’ll see why they can be hard to see. Katydids spend their brief lives up in the treetops where they feed on the leafy vegetation. Living up to the adage that you “are what you eat,” they are the epitome of greenness.  They blend in perfectly to their chosen background and enjoy the advantage of camophlage. 

  The individual who descended onto my head was an immature. He had a bit of growing to do and eventually those little wing buds will expand into a perfect imitation of a leaf (see a picture of the adult insect here).

  The Katydids are in the Grasshopper & Cricket clan. They owe their name to an oft repeated phrase uttered by one of their number. It is claimed that many years ago a young woman fell deeply in love with a man.  Let’s say he was a prince, or something, just to spice up the story.  She was a peasant and her name was Katy Orthopterwitcz.  Well things didn’t work out – the parents hired lawyers and ended the forbidden affair. Later the prince married someone else equal to his social level.  Personally, I think the prince was a dolt and probably didn’t give a hoot about Katy, but I can’t condone Miss Katy’s response to the whole thing. You see, the prince and his new bride were found murdered a few nights later.  An open window revealed the killer’s escape route, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the case together again. In other words they couldn’t solve it. Just outside the open window, a lone witness attempted to cross the species barrier and reveal the killer’s identity.  From outside the window he testified “Katy did.  Katy did it. Katy did.” No one paid any attention to the tiny green insect and he’s still trying to gain the attention of Cold Case detectives to this day.

  All Katydids don’t testify. To be fair about it, only the so-called “True Katydids” can lay claim to the above story. Our immature ‘Did is a member of a splinter group called the “False Katydids.” They are not fake, but simply different.  To the eye they look just like other Katydids, but are unveiled by the ear. Our Anglewing Katy will not be able to speak until his “voice” grows in. The calls are generated by rubbing together a rasp and file mechanism on the upper portion of the wings.  Even at maturity, he will only be able to manage a series of loud “tsks” as if shaking his finger at this whole “Katy” thing.  Take a hear here to listen to a few examples of the Anglewing’s call.

  There may be an explanation as to why the king’s men ignored the original insect testimony many years ago. Maybe they couldn’t hear it.  While our hearing abilities range in the 30 to 16,000 Hertz range, insects typically call within the 4,000 to 20,000 Hertz range. This means that insects, such as Katydids, perform in the upper range our hearing abilities to begin with.  Thanks to the effects of age, and a condition known as “presbycusis,” humans tend to loose hearing perception of sounds emitted at over the 10,000 Hertz level by the time they are 50 years old.  Perhaps the King’s men were all A.A.R.P. members that had lost their ability to hear Presbyterians cussing or insects singing.

  Greater Anglewings call within the 9,000 Hertz range. (In case you think I am making this up, please look into a new book called “The Songs of Insects” by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger – it will open up your eyes and ears to the world of insect music).

  Before I released the young Anglewing, I grabbed it for a close-up shot (see here). Those long hind legs make for convenient handles as long as you are careful.  Oddly enough, Katydids are clumsy jumpers, but they are a leggy group. Just for fun, take a look at this image of a hatchling Anglewing to see what this critter looked like a few weeks ago (cute, eh?).

  Note the abundance of freckles covering the Greater Anglewing’s face.  It reminds me of my daughter Kate, who has always hated her freckles. I maintain to this day that they are points of beauty, but when she was little I could always tell if “Katy Did It” or not (left a mess or threw out her broccoli, not murder) if her freckles disappeared. She turns red when embarrassed and the freckles would fade against the background of her flush cheeks.

  Insect don’t blush, but this individual flashed me an indignant glare which is identical to my daughter’s occasional disapproving glances (like right now, for instance, as she discovers I am writing about her.)

  One thing about the Anglewing is totally different from my daughter. Take another look at the picture and you’ll notice a semicircular patch on each front leg – just below the bend of the leg. These structures are called Tympanum and they are eardrums. Katydids hear each other via their front knees. I suppose old Katydids practically have to touch knees in order to hear each other by the time they are the equivalent of being 50 years old.

  October frosts will silence our little ‘Did.  His kind will over winter within clusters of eggs inserted into twigs. He will wither just like the leaves around him, but I look forward to one of his kids falling on my head next year.

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