Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 28, 2007

Beginning to Look Like Christmas

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:41 pm

The Wandering Naturalist

 For the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me while I am on the road.  Some might call this jaunt a vacation, but a naturalist vacation is usually a busman’s holiday. I’ll continue to do what I always do and see what the regional scene offers.  My ability to check in will depend on our ability to connect to a local internet server from time to time, since we are camping on this trip.  My blogs will be short and (hopefully) sweet and will be based on a series of photos. Think of these sessions as a series of postcards sent home by your wandering naturalist.

Richmond, Virginia

  On the route from Roanoke to Richmond, the hot hazy surroundings provided an atmosphere which reminded me Christmas.  The need to think about cooler climes is a very necessary thing when in the middle of a very unseasonal heat wave.  Signs of the Jolly season are here in the form of Mistletoe, Holly, and Santa’s beard. 

  On Roanoke Island, at the site of the famous “lost colony” settled briefly by the first Englishmen in the New World, the Red Maples sport clusters of mistletoe.  You may not have realized it, but the “kissing plant” is a parasite.  It requires the host tissue of a tree in order to grow.  This presence of this evergreen becomes obvious once the host trees lose their leaves.  Take a look here at healthy cluster growing like a branch directly out of the trunk of a somewhat unhealthy maple.  Think of that sickly maple when you hang a sprig of mistletoe three months from now. 

  Holly trees grow as an understory tree beneath the canopy of the oak/pine forest.  We tend not to think of Holly attaining treelike proportions, but it can grow to 30 feet or so. Take a look here at a cluster of the familiar evergreen leaves and the not so familiar patchy gray trunk.  Soon the surrounding oaks will drop their leaves, leaving the Long-leaf pines and pyramidal Holly trees to carry on the tradition of Christmas green (although there will be no snow to complete the scene).

  I am reminded of the holiday tradition of fooling young children as we passed the fields of cotton growing in southern Virginia.  My father made a point to adhere some strands of cotton to the bricks near the table where we left snacks for Santa on Christmas Eve.  In the morning we found positive proof of St. Nick’s visit in the form of small strands of his beard.  It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered to my shock and horror that my old man was messing with us kids.  He knew that we wouldn’t investigate the strands to reveal that they were really plant material. From that time on, I vowed to do the same thing with my kids.  In this ploy I was fairly successful – just ask my offspring.

  As a devote northerner, I could not resist the temptation to pull over and grab a specimen of a cotton plant.  All of the back roads are littered with pieces of cotton.  It is harvesting season here and the raw cotton is apparently flying off the trucks heading for the mills.  If you are like me, you probably have never seen the actual plant that Santa’s beard comes from. 

  Take a look here at the plant itself – a stout looking thing about two and a half foot high.  The leaves (see here) look somewhat like a maple leaf and the Cotton bolls themselves look like small limes (see here). The pods burst open and yield their product in surprisingly pure form (see here).  Each pod produces the equivalent of 4 or 5 cotton balls. 

  One could write a history of the United States based on the cultivation of this plant.  It is safe to say that it was one of the primary causes of the Civil War.  The invention of Eli Whitney’s Gin – made to extract the seeds out of the raw product – alone precipitated the necessity of slavery and ignited the moral responsibility to end it.  Today the plant still holds sway in this country, so is well worth examining.

September 26, 2007

Cape Hatteras Hard Hats

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:18 am

The Wandering Naturalist

 For the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me while I am on the road.  Some might call this jaunt a vacation, but a naturalist vacation is usually a busman’s holiday. I’ll continue to do what I always do and see what the regional scene offers.  My ability to check in will depend on our ability to connect to a local internet server from time to time, since we are camping on this trip.  My blogs will be short and (hopefully) sweet and will be based on a series of photos. Think of these sessions as a series of postcards sent home by your wandering naturalist.


Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

  The wild rolling dunes, crashing Atlantic surf, and bustling town waterfronts of the Cape Hatteras are home to a wide variety of crabs.  Feeling a bit crabby myself due to the unusual late September heat wave, I thought this might be an appropriate topic to discuss.  Over the last few days I have encountered these leggy crustaceans at every turn (and on nearly every plate).

  Although the pounding surf line is a harsh environment for wildlife, one diminutive crab calls this environs home.  The Mole Crab really doesn’t look like a crab at all; it looks more like a crayfish without tail or appendages.  Living just under the surface sand these “moles” filter out debris from the backflow water from a dying wave. They stick their heads out of the sand just long enough to perform this duty and quickly retreat to avoid the Whimbrils, Oystercatchers, and other hungry beach combers.

  I was fortunate enough to get hold of a whole one – well, relatively whole (it had a hole in his head left by one of those beach birds).  While the cast skins are all over the beach, their owners are much more cryptic. Since the photo doesn’t do it too much justice, I did a field sketch to illustrate the filtering antennae and arrangement of stubby legs (look here and here).  It really does resemble a pebble.  I guess that’s a good shape to have if you are a beach bum like this.

  Just up from the surf is the domain of the Ghost Crab.  During the day their numerous burrows dot the beach and dune slopes (look here).  Tiny tracks mark the feeding activities of each burrow owner.  Large individuals leave much larger tracks that register military precision while co-coordinating their many legs (look here).

   Although most of the Ghost Crabs are tiny, they get to be pretty sizable. This large one was master of a small estuary beach and held court from the safety of his large burrow.  I caught his lordship away from his burrow and he wasn’t happy about it.  Eventually he turned to offer a taste of his substantial claws and caused me to back off.  True to their name, these crabs appear and disappear like spirits.  They blend into the sand so well that at times they can only be seen via their shadow (see here).

   Clouds of vicious salt marsh mosquitoes have kept me away from the haunts of the familiar Fiddler Crabs, so I can’t offer any photos of these lop-sided beasts.  I did encounter a crab that I had not seen before outside the confines of a pet store – the Hermit Crab.  These fellows were patrolling the quiet edge waters on the estuary side of the Cape. Hermits take over the empty shells of snails, whelks and periwinkles to use as mobile homes.  When they outgrow their old house, they seek real estate in a larger shell.  Transferring from one shell to another can be tricky business since the hind end of the Hermit Crab is very soft and un-armored.  The whole body plan of the hermit is elongated, as you can see here.  I especially admired the long eye stalks. 

This one picked up his camper and hauled shell across the sea wall in order to get back to his liquid element.   Last, and certainly not least in this incomplete tour of Cape Crabs, is the blue Crab.  Here is a crab that everyone can love – inside and out.  We enjoyed several meals consisting of this succulent delight, but we also did some live crab watching off the pier behind the restaurant in Nags Head.  In the dim light of the setting sun (the sun sets here at 7 pm!) the waters beneath the boardwalk began to swarm with sulking forms.  I was able to take a shot of a one-armed Blue resting on an old crab trap.  

  Though the photo is blurred by several feet of cloudy water, you can see the prominent flippers on the back pair of legs.  Blues are swimming crabs and their scientific name literally translates as “Beautiful Swimmers.”   They use these paddles at times when side walking won’t do. 

  A fleet of jellyfish entered the cove as the last reflected glow of the sun washed over the bay.  We left our one armed bandit to his night-time wandering.  I’m pretty sure one of the things he’s looking for is his lost limb.  Once he finds it, in true crab fashion, he’ll probably eat it and drink to the success of his remaining claw.

September 24, 2007

The Gannet of Opportunity

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:50 pm

The Wandering Naturalist

 For the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me while I am on the road.  Some might call this jaunt a vacation, but a naturalist vacation is usually a busman’s holiday. I’ll continue to do what I always do and see what the regional scene offers.  My ability to check in will depend on our ability to connect to a local internet server from time to time, since we are camping on this trip.  My blogs will be short and (hopefully) sweet and will be based on a series of photos. Think of these sessions as a series of postcards sent home by your wandering naturalist.


Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

  They say that opportunities come to you if you are open to them.  Approaching the small coastal berg of Hatteras at the S.E. angle of the Outer Banks of North Carolina we encountered just such an opportunity.  On the right side of the road was a Northern Gannet attacking a trash barrel.  Now you don’t see this everyday, so we pulled over to see why the bird was fending off the receptacle.

  It was immediately obvious that it was injured – having been struck by a passing vehicle.  The road was very narrow here, so it was pretty important to get the bird away from the offending barrel and further off the road.  As I walked up from one side, a bright yellow pickup truck pulled up from the other.  Two salty employees of the local ferry service, dressed in their Texaco uniforms, inquired out the window about the bird.  They were willing to “do something” about the poor seabird, but didn’t show any desire to pick it up themselves. 

  I can’t say that I blame them for their hesitation, because the Gannet had switched his hatred over from the barrel to my pant leg.  It was attempting to land some pretty severe blows – it was hurt but not without spunk.  I should explain that Northern Gannets are birds of the open sea who nest along the north Atlantic Coast. They are not from around here.  As a goose-sized fishing bird, it is well equipped with a formidable dagger of a beak and spring loaded neck.  They dive for their prey and normally turn themselves into missiles while making their catch.  Both forward facing blue eyes were aimed directly down the line of the beak – at me.

  Eventually, after a comical battle in mid-street Hatteras, I managed to get a burlap bag over his eyes long enough to grab the back of his head and control the weapon.  The ferry gals said that “Ray could probably do something about it.  He could hep it out,” so I slowly placed in the back of the pickup and wished it well.

  Before saying goodbye, I took the opportunity to take a good look at that fish spear beak.  It was about 7 inches long, blade-like and equipped with a slitted nostril. The head, neck and breast was thickly feathered. This is a trait to absorb the impact of a high altitude dive.  The wings were very long and narrow – something typical of open sea birds.  Such a wing structure is referred to as having  a high aspect ratio, but this only means that the ratio of length to width is something like 6: 1 (or something like that). Birds that sail on the ocean breezes use these appendages which are shaped just like glider wings. 

  In all respects, the bird appeared to be an immature bird.  Adults are white with black wing tips while this individual was buffy brown.  Gannets are the only North American representatives of the Booby clan.  The one booby that always comes to mind is the blue footed booby.  While this is no blue foot, the foot is pretty impressive. Take a look here before the critter yanks it out of my grip! 

  As the bird drove away (actually the humans were driving), I fully expected to never see it again, but the opportunity offered itself one more time.  At the Ocracoke Ferry dock, some 15 minutes later, I spotted a familiar looking yellow pickup with a bunch of employees looking at something in the back.  I asked what they were looking at and one of them said “looks to be a heron or a loon or something. Some guy picked it up”  I peeked in and there was my Gannet.  “Are you going to be able to do anything?” I asked, after admitting that I was that guy.  They assured me that some guy from up Manteo way was coming down.

  Right now I’m sitting under the shade of some pigmy Loblolly Pines in Ocracoke,  not too far from a whale skull that washed up on the beach in 1988.  I’m hoping the nearby Ocracoke Library will provide the elusive internet connection I need, but am willing to send this piece via repaired Gannet.

  Meanwhile, I’m waiting for another opportunity to come by.  I know it will.

And now, the Rattlesnake Arrives

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:39 pm

 As promised, I am forwarding a few pictures of the Rattlesnake and the Cricket Frog mentioned in the blog before last.  Please take a look here for the Timber Rattler (side view, top view, detail).  The tiny ‘lil ole Cricket Frog can be seen here.

  If you have time for one more picture, here’e one I didn’t talk about but can’t resist putting it in. While taking down camp in Greensboro, N.C. I came upon this fantastic looking little Micrathena spider.  It’s worth a good close look, but for now I’ll have to let the picture speak for itself.  The actual body size is only about 1/2 inch, by the way, so the camera is doing the up close “thing” for you.  Don’t worry, it’s safe.

September 22, 2007

The Wandering Naturalist

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:30 pm

Southern North Carolina

 Alright, this is where the picture connection stops.  I can’t get the proper internet to download my pictures, so words will have to do.

 We’re camping in South Carolina about three feet south of the North Carolina state border at a place called King’s Mountain State Park. The impounded lake here is a shallow weedy affair.  I ventured down to it’s shoreline about sunset last night and was treated to the sight of dozens of bats feeding on the midges rising fom the water surface.  They appeared to be Littel Brown Bats, but the dim light and the flittering forms made this an impossible thing to determine. Whatever they were, there were dozens of them overhead, around and over the lake.

  The nice thing about bats is that they are living bug zappers.  Standing in the silence of the evening, the only sound greeting my ears was the hushed fluttering of webbed wings and the occassional snap of bat mouth on bug.  More than once a fluttermouse dipped down to my level and snatched a mosquito out of the air. This is a very satifying sight and sound.

  Oddly enough, bats are among the noisiest of creatures, but their ultrasonic calls are out of our hearing range.  If I had remembered to bring my bat detector (I knew I forgot something), the clicking noise would register as a deafening chorus of echolocation.  They shout and wait for the sound waves to bounce back.  As the waves get closer together the target is marked and the aerial mammal zooms in for the snatch.  Little Browns use their wing and tail membranes to scoop the prey out of the air beofre grabbing it with their mouths.  From the looks of things this was a bad night for mosquitoes.

  Returning to lake edge this morning, I was greeted by another welcome sight.  A tiny Cricket Frog attempted a launch into the water. I intercepted the amphibian before it struck liquid.  Cricket Frogs used to be a common sight up in Michigan, but have disappeared over the years and are now very rare in the state.  Holding this micro frog carefully between my thumb and forefinger, I took great care not to harm it.  Cricket Frogs are literally the size of Crickets, so the entire beast could barely reach across my fingertip.  They are overall an even brown color with a bumply skin texture. 

  Long ago they used to be tree frogs and still retain the toe pads needed for that job. Now they reside in weedy shallow lakes and some day, way down the line, they will lose the pads and gain some webs.  Neither you nor I will be around to see this happen, so don’t hold your breath.

  Cricket Frogs don’t call in autumn, or else I would have heard them last night while bat watching.  Next spring, however,  my little captive will resume the “Crick Crick Crick Cricket Cricket Cricket” call that fits their name and appearance.  In the meantime, take two marbles and click them together and you’ll get a great imitation of the Cricket Frog call.

  I trust the Carolina mountains will offer up an array of wildlife and flora as the week goes on.  Persimmons and black Gum trees are attaining a beautiful ruby hue.  the persimmons are ripening and offering succulant Grey Squirrel fare. A Black Vulture circled overhead today and Mocking Birds are everywhere.

  Yesterday I picked a young Timber Rattlesnake off the road.  Apparently it was attempting to soak up some of the residual heat off the road before it was struck and killed by early morning traffic.  Although only about 12″ long, this beauty has all the marks of the species.  Its background color is pale cream overlaid with a dramatic series of dark red-brown “V’s” down the back.  A chalky cinnamon smear runs down the center of the back as if somebody touched it before it was dry.  Around these parts, the light colored versions are known as “Canebreak Rattlers” – which is far better than the scientific name of the subspecies which is Crotalus horridus atricaudatus.  Further north, this species becomes darker in pigmentation.  It really is a stunning snake, and I hope to forward some photos soon.

  I’ll get some time at the next campsite to view it in detail. In order to preserve the snake, we paid a visit to the local Walmart to buy some alcohol and a glass jar.  So preserved, the snake (which is in beautiful condition aside from being dead) will last for a very long time.  This is the method used by early naturalists and explorers  to preserve their collections, so I am tapping into a rich tradition here.  I’m sure Lewis and Clark would have appreciated the opportunity to explore a Walmart.

September 20, 2007

A Wandering Naturalist

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:39 am

The Wandering Naturalist

 For the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me while I am on the road.  Some might call this jaunt a vacation, but a naturalist vacation is usually a busman’s holiday. I’ll continue to do what I always do and see what the regional scene offers.  My ability to check in will depend on our ability to connect to a local internet server from time to time, since we are camping on this trip.  My blogs will be short and (hopefully) sweet and will be based on a series of photos. Think of these sessions as a series of postcards sent home by your wandering naturalist.

 Hi Ho from the Hockhocking Hills

 Our first destination was the Hocking Hills region of southern Ohio. A good afternoon and evening of nature study turned up a nice variety of sights and sounds. I can send you a few of the sights, but will have to leave the hooting Barred Owl, calling Pileated Woodpecker, and the Blue Jay mimicking the call of the Red-shouldered Hawk to your imagination.

   Ca Aw Aw

  Take a look at this Crow track neatly impressed in the dusty clay at our campsite.  Since this region is named after the Wyandot Indian name of Hockhocking, it is fitting to address the crow by its Wyandot name of Ca Aw Aw (after the bird’s call). The track itself is about 2 ¼ inch long and clearly shows the “three toes forward and one back” arrangement. Note how two of the forward toes are side by side while the third is angled away. We don’t get a chance to see bird tracks that often, so it’s good to examine one every now and then. These birds were frequent daytime visitors to the vacated camp sites and their marks were nearly as common as those left by the raccoons that pay nightly visits.

Look at me – I’m hiding

    The small river flowing through Hocking Hills State Park was largely dried up. Since the bottom consists of time worn bedrock, the only remaining water exists where the flowing element has carved out pockets over eons of time.  In these isolated pools, creek chubs, snails, aquatic insects, and frogs awaiting the return of the rains.

  A sizable Green Frog leapt to the safety of one of the deeper sanctuaries upon my approach.  In usual circumstances, frogs swim to the bottom leaf layer and hide out under their protective shelter.  They can remain under for a very long time, if necessary, since they can breathe through their skin. In this case, there were no bottom leaves to hide under, but the frog adopted the usual pose anyway. Here we see her spread eagled on the rock bottom some 12 inches under the water, but don’t let her know that!

Liver What?

  Behold the Liverwort.  This primitive plant clings to the surface of the rock where shade and dripping water keeps it eternally moist. The name recalls the ancient system of naming plants after the part of the body they are supposed to heal.  As you’d guess, this determination was arrived at by looking at the plant’s general appearance.  This one looks something like a liver, so…..  Yes, there is a bit of circular reasoning here, but I can’t do anything about it now.  The “wort” part of the name is old English for “plant.” Take a good close look anyway and don’t be tempted to eat it.

Pretty Nut

  Here is a somewhat useless “art” shot, but I wanted to take a shot of the White Oak Acorn in order to highlight its yellow hue.  I placed it on a background of gnarled Hemlock roots with an elm leaf and some purple sand from the nearby cliff.  Voila! A simple acorn becomes art.

Cliff Notes

  The deep ravines and overhang shelters that typify the Hocking Hills recall a time when things were much cooler than they are now.  During the last Ice Age, starting over 1 million years ago, northern plants such as the Hemlock, White Pine and Yellow Birch were forced to seek refuge south and beyond the reach of the great ice sheets.  The glaciers never made it down to southern Ohio. The ice retreated some 14,000 years ago and most of these plants followed the sheet north. A few remnants of these northern trees remained in the south, however, where high altitude or cool microclimates (such as here) favored their growth.  Here is a Yellow Birch clinging to the side of one of the cliffs – illustrating the sheer tenacity of such an organism to take root without the benefit of soil, or gravity.

Black Tiger

   There is nothing quite as stunning as a Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly.  Their bright yellow and black striping gives them a distinctive and instantly recognizable appearance. Take a look here and here, and you’ll see the all-black version of this swallowtail. Black Tigers are quite common, but are easy to confuse with the smaller Black Swallowtail. Closer examination will reveal the shadowy stripe marks on the ashy black wings when the sun hits them just right. This individual was showing the effects of a rough summer- having lost her “tails” and a goodly portion of her hind wings. She was in no mood to pause very long for a portrait either.

A Phasinating Phasmid

  Walking Sticks are closely related to grasshoppers, but really don’t look like them. Grouped in a related cluster of clever twig mimicking insects called the Phasmids, these stick bugs make a living by not being seen. Even their own cousins would as likely use them as a perch as invite them to the family barbeques. Here’s one that greeted me this morning (look here and here).  His cover was completely blown because he froze in place on the side of a white restroom building.  Later, when I placed him on a ripe Sassafras leaf, he stubbornly maintained his pose.  Perhaps he and the previously mentioned Green Frog are related?

September 17, 2007

A Bird in Hand

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:50 pm

  Each fall there is a migration of African magnitude taking place in S.E. Michigan.  It is as spectacular and awe inspiring as the herds of wildebeest and zebra seen on the Discovery Channel, although it goes on in silence and relative obscurity.  To see it you have to cast your eyes upward and peer into the autumn skies overhead.  Great hordes of raptors – hawks, eagles, falcons, and vultures – stream over our airspace on their southward journey.  These birds come from the Canadian Shield area and funnel over the mouth of the Detroit River by the tens of thousands.  From there they pour down over Monroe County on their way to all points south.

  This funneling point is located at Lake Erie Metropark near Gibraltar, MI. Here you will find one of the premier hawk-watching sites in the country – a place to view the N.E. sky and catch a glimpse of 17 species ranging from the delicate Kestrel to the massive Golden Eagle.  At this crossing point, counters identify the passing flocks and record some pretty impressive numbers.    

  Rather than continue with the superlatives of this spectacular phenomenon, I’ll direct you to, the web site for the Southeast Michigan Raptor Research group that tracks this migration.  So far this season (which began on Sept. 1) there have been 122,989 hawks tallied, but for now I’d like to direct your attention to just four of these birds.

  We had the golden opportunity to reach up into the migration stream and snatch a few of the travelers during our annual Hawkfest – an event that celebrates this raptor passover. On Sunday, the second day of the event, a Broad-winged Hawk, two Sharp-shinned Hawks, and a Cooper’s Hawk were persuaded to pay us a visit.  These birds were trap netted (lured by the promise of a tethered Starling) and banded for research purposes.  Before being released, however, they were brought over to the Hawkfest location and introduced to a crowd of curious onlookers.

  First up was a Broad-winged Hawk (see here).  This species is truly the star of the fall migration.  Over 73,000 of his kind passed over our site on Saturday and 15,385 would make the scene by the end of this day.  This individual, approximately number 10,244 in the migrant count for Saturday- give or take a few thousand – is a full-sized but immature bird.  Broad-wings are the smallest members of a group of hawks known as the buteos. Adult birds are distinguished by a clearly banded black & white tail and a rufous red-brown chest. Once common in Michigan, these forest hawks have all but disappeared from the local landscape.  This Canadian bird (eh?) will make his way all the way to Argentina by the time his journey is done. Confident that his Spanish lessons were progressing, this senor was bid “adios” and propelled back into the migration stream.

  Next to the Broad-wings, Sharp-shinned Hawks are the most common September migrants.  There have been 3,490 recorded so far this year and on this day they were coming in at a rate of nearly 100 birds per hour.  Over one particular hour, counters ticked off nearly 400 birds.

  We persuaded two young (human) ladies to help us handle a matched set of these birds (see here for the male bird and here to see a female).  “Sharpies,” as they are known to the counters, are members of a class of hawks known as Accipiters, or “bird hawks.”  Of course as hawks they are “birds,” but that Nome de plume means that they eat other birds for a living.  Chances are you’ve seen one of these feeding at your bird feeder (on your feathered friends, not your seed!).

  Both of these temporary captives were immature birds as well, but the male was actually a 2nd year bird. The larger female had the intense yellow eyes and brown streaked plumage that marked her as a first year bird.  In other words she was born this spring.  The male, literally on the other hand, had orange eyes and was gaining the adult plumage which consists of a slate gray back and a red-brown barred chest.  Should he survive into the following year, he will return north sporting bright ruby red eyes.  He has beaten the odds by making it into his second year, while she faces an 80% chance of not surviving until the return trip.

  The male bird had just eaten before his capture and his crop was bulging.  A feather was stuck onto his beak as a souvenir of that meal. We carefully wiped his hooked bill before the photo op and sent both of them skyward to resume their journey.

  Last up for our perusal was a female Cooper’s Hawk (see here).  She also represents the accipiter clan and is a close cousin to the smaller sharpies that preceded her. Like them, she will gain red eyes, slate back and red-brown breast by the time she reaches the age of three and, like them, her chances of making it there are stacked against her.  Many of her kind will stick around to feed on your feeder birds this winter, so please give her the respect she deserves – it ain’t easy being a ‘coop.  Accipiters have short powerful wings (see here) and long tails that allow them magnificent maneuverability when chasing their avian prey through the brush. Look here to see what’s left of a Mourning Dove after an encounter with one of these accipiters (you could say that this was a Mourning dove in need of mourning).

  There are far fewer Cooper’s Hawks in the natural scheme of things than the other two hawks mentioned – that’s just the way it is.  This fall only 78 have been seen flying over. On this particular September day only four made the count, so we were fortunate enough to hold onto 25% of the daily population.

  William Cooper, the 19th century naturalist for whom the bird was named, would have been proud of his namesake as she was released.  After a few powerful wing beats, in order to gain some altitude, she let loose a stream of whitewash as if putting a punctuation mark on her opinion regarding temporary captivity.  A bird in the hand is good for the humans but two in the bush is good for the bird.

September 14, 2007

A Drop of Bear’s Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 pm

  The end of the long hunt is nearing completion.  Over the course of the year three intrepid hunters have relentlessly pursued their elusive quarry. The object of their pursuit is a legendary bear of unimaginable power, size, and ability.  Now, it appears that the fatal arrow has been launched from the lead hunter’s bow and driven hard into its mark. The Great Bear is fatally wounded and rich red blood streams from his side.  Drops of crimson fluid mark his route and they will soon lead to the spot where he will fall for the final time.

   We were not witness to the arrow’s path, but the drops of dried blood on the Virginia Creeper leaves are proof enough that the act has occurred (see here).  They tell us that now the time is ripe to re-tell the ancient tale and explain the reenactment of a ritual killing older than time itself. 

  Our story begins back in the misty era before people roamed the earth. Back then animals could talk just like you and I.  They also lived in wigwams and were masters of fire.  Why they have since lost all these skills is a true mystery, but of no importance to our tale.  It so happens that in a village, not so far from here, lived three great hunters: Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay. Although all were exceptional, Robin stood out as the greatest hunter of bunch.

  Perhaps it was Chickadee who suggested it, but in time they came to a mutual agreement that they would attempt to slay the Great Bear.  Everyone who had attempted this ended up abandoning the effort in frustration or becoming prey themselves. Since our trio represented the greatest of all hunters, after all, this was their destiny.  So it came to be that in the very early spring of the year the three started out on their quest and entered the forest. Robin was to perform the kill, Chickadee was charged with carrying the large kettle in which they would cook their prize, and Gray Jay was to clean up after them both.

  The Great Bear, having just emerged from his winter sleep, was still groggy and did not detect the arrival of the hunters.  He was in the process of tearing open a termite infested log when their scent greeted his nostrils.  Not ready for the challenge, he turned and galloped back into the thicket where he was usually able to vanish from all pursuers.  He doubled back and prepared for ambush, but our hunters sensed the ploy and waited him out. 

  After several such roundabouts, the bear decided to head beyond the hills and lose his would be assassins.  He broke into a tireless gallop and soon left them miles behind.  Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay dogged his trail, however, and always shortened the gap whenever the bear paused. At some point well into spring, the bear decided to do what he always did in such cases and he ran up into the skyworld.

  Now Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay, being birds, launched into the sky right behind him and kept on his tail.  Throughout the balance of spring and into mid summer the beast was unable to trick or otherwise shake his chasers.  It was in very very late summer that Robin, the best hunter of the group, was able to get close enough to launch an arrow with his bow.  The shot was long and cursed by wind and cloud, but it flew true and dove deeply into the bear’s chest.

  Being a very great bear, he did not show any effect at first.  He kept running at a steady pace. The blood flow from the wound was just a mere trickle at first, but soon increased to a torrent.  Blood sprinkled down upon the green tree leaves below and marked his path.  Even the greatest of beasts will eventually run out of blood and our bear, drained of his last ounce of life, crashed to the ground and died.

  Robin was the first on the scene and he jumped upon the dead quarry and pulled the arrow out without thought.  Now, normally robin was always proud of the purity of his white breast and never allowed anything to soil its immaculate beauty.  In his exuberance he accidently sprayed blood upon his chest and stained it red – a stain that has remained to this day.

  Chickadee arrived on the scene, set down the kettle and danced with robin in celebration of their success.  When gray jay arrived it was his task to remind the two that there was much work to be done. The bear, he chirped, must be butchered and rendered and they must return to the village before winter.  They set about building a fire under the kettle and went to work.

  First, the great shag of fur was removed and the body cut up into pieces.  Each piece of the great bear was as sizable as the whole body of any regular bear, so the pot began to overflow. Bubbling yellow fat began to spill over the edge and drip down onto the green and red-speckled leaves of the trees below. Though it took some time, the bear was finally reduced to cooked meat, rendered fat and a hide large enough to cover a council lodge. Our hunters returned home with their catch and thus entered the world of legend.

  A few days after the hunters left the scene, all the dried blood and dried fat remaining on the forest leaves mellowed into a shade of even brown. 

  In honor of the passing of the Great Bear, nature re-enacts the story of the hunt every year.  Tree leaves bear the color of red blood and yellow fat before turning brown and falling to the ground. 

  Such is the gist of an ancient legend told by northern tribes in order to explain some of the mysteries of autumn.  You can now track the sequence and see the fresh blood and fat along with the dried browns of late autumn.  Knowing that some among you would be doubtful of the veracity of this tale, I here present some form of proof.  Peer into the night sky and find the constellation called the Big Dipper – a major part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear (see here for more than you need to know about this constellation).

  This grouping of stars has been associated with the form of a bear since, well, before animals could talk, I guess.  The Ancient Greeks, Hebrews and Arabics all share some sort of a “bear tale” revolving around this celestial pattern. In the Grecian story, the bear is part of the greater story of Callisto, and the beast sports a long tail (see here). 

  American Indians also point to this constellation as the outline of the Great Bear. Their story rightly acknowledges that bears do not in fact have long tails. The three stars forming the handle of the “dipper” or the tail, they will point out, are actually Robin, Chickadee and Gray Jay pursuing the bear. (In some Native lore, there were actually seven hunter birds that started out, but owl, saw-whet, blue jay and pigeon all dropped out and left the three finishers to complete the task. The four stars forming the hand and sickle of the Grecian Bootes constellation are considered part of the great bear in Mic-Mac country.)  The proof that I promised is to be found in the form of the second star – that denoting Chickadee. This is actually a double star, or to put it more clearly, the succinct evidence of Chickadee carrying his kettle.

  Go ahead, use a telescope and look for yourself. The astronomy books will call these hunter stars Alioth, Mizar & Alcor, and Alkaid and inform you of their position in the tail of the bear.  To some among us, however, we know them better as the three great hunters. Their position is part of the tale – not the tail.

September 12, 2007

A Mist of Witch

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:08 pm

 Whenever there is more than one of anything, that cluster is given a special name.  Take, for instance, a flock of birds or a peck of apples.  Some groupings, such as a pod of whales or a gaggle of geese, are standard parts of the English language but any reference to a murder of crows or a rabble of caterpillars, are rightly left between the pages of the dictionary.  How anyone could classify a group of caterpillars as a rabble is beyond me.  Can you imagine a surly gang of larvae ripping up the local bar?  I think not.

  Most things of small notice are left without official group names or are destined to share names with greater things. I feel that this leaves us free to declare that there can be a falsehood of pseudo scorpions or a school of trout lilies.  A lexicon of word police will not come to unplug our computers or a herd of mouses will not descend upon or homes in the form of a plague. With this in mind, I propose that a multiple grouping of Old Witch Grass should be called a “Mist” of Witch from now on.

  I admit it -I had to resort to trickery to keep you hanging on long enough to get to the point where we are talking about grass.  Grasses are not high on our interest list. Given the choice of “Caterpillar Rabble Gangs of New York” or “Witch Grass in Our Daily Life” as television menu items, I’m pretty sure the caterpillars would win out.  The same result would occur if I offered that choice here in print, so before you go please take a moment to look at this grass photo (ignore the goldenrod blooms in the foreground).

   Don’t you agree that a bed of witch grass looks like purple morning mist? The hazy presentation comes from the collective appearance of the branching seed heads.  Each seed head is called an inflorescence or a panicle. The individual plants are spindly looking (see here or at this official type picture here), but as a group – a “Mist” – they offer us some autumn color. Since the purple patches are easy to spot, you can appreciate this grass from behind the wheel of your car as you buzz down the highway, but consider stopping in for a closer look if you get the chance. This particular grass is called Common Witchgrass, Old Witch Grass, or Panicum capillare.

  The “panicum” part of the scientific name refers to the panicum, or millet like, seed inflorescence which takes up the entire upper half of the plant.  Eventually this branching top portion breaks off and rolls across the landscape like a tumbleweed – sowing a crop of seeds as it goes. A glance at this other picture will reveal the very hairy appearance of the leaves and the reason for the “capillare” name which means “hair-like.”

  Aside from our visual benefit, witch grass serves as food for small birds and a rabble of skipper butterfly caterpillars.  The birds eat the tiny, but numerous, seeds and the gangster ‘pillars eat the green growing leaves. 

  I’d like to spend more time with some details of this grass’s life, but I understand that I have probably pushed you beyond your limits of grass tolerance. The limits of my camera restrict the amount of detail that I can share with you anyway, so I’ll leave you with this stunning photomicrograph of a cross section of a Panicum grass leaf taken by someone else.  If nothing else it confirms that there is beauty in both the overall view and in the incredibly detailed view of this humble grass.  Here is a thing of beauty to a hungry Skipper larva. Here is a mere collection of cells that form a grouping called Witch Grass.

September 10, 2007

The Turtle’s Bellybutton

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:18 pm

 I have a nicely bound edition of the American Naturalist of 1872 in my collection, and find it great fun to scan the pages between the marbled end sheets and rich leather binding for gems of wisdom.  On page 305 there is a small notice regarding snapping turtles which I found interesting. Here the editor quotes the great naturalist Agassiz who relates the following in the form of a typical nineteenth century run-on sentence: “The snapping turtle…exhibits it’s small cross like sternum, its long tail, its ferocious habits, even before it leaves the egg, before it breathes through lungs, before it’s derm is ossified to form a bony shield, etc.; nay, it snaps with its gaping jaws at anything brought near (while still in the egg).”  He goes on to reference another naturalist who “quotes as a remarkable fact, that the Chelonara serpentina bites as soon as it is hatched.”

  Though I owe much to such learned folk, I must respectfully disagree with their assessment in this case.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you just such a youthful specimen of Chelonia serpentina brought in to me the other day.  Take a look here and you will see a hatchling snapper probably less than a week old. This is not the first, nor shall it be the last, of these little gems that I have encountered over the years. Gentlemen of yesteryear let me assure you – hatchlings snappers don’t bite.

  While I can’t contribute anything to the proposal that these miniature turtles perform the act of biting at shadows while in the egg, I can definitively say they show no desire to do so when newly out of the boundaries of their shell. The whole thing becomes a moot point, when you get down to it, because a new born snapping turtle is so tiny that their jaws would have little effect even if they chose to use them upon our being. Once they gain a few years and a few pounds it’s a different story, but even this is greatly exaggerated.

  Earlier in the year, sometime in late May or early June, this mini turtle was planted as one of 20 -30 round eggs.  The responsible female, who we’ll call “Mom,” chose a site away from the marsh edge to dig a vase shaped hole with her hind feet.  Once her clutch of ping pong balls were deposited, she covered them up and returned to the water -leaving all the incubating duties to the whims of the sun.

  Deep within the nest, the soil temperatures determine which embryos will require pink or blue ribbons upon hatching.  Should any portion of the nest environment hover around 72 -82 degrees F, the eggs in that area will develop into males.  Those eggs which remain cooler or warmer than that range will ultimately turn into females.  Unlike you and I, who are either female or male from the moment of our creation, snapper eggs don’t finish up their genetic wiring until the oven is turned on.

  The new crop of snappers begins hatching out after 60 and 90 days in the cooker. This translates to an emergence time in late August through September.   Unfortunately, most don’t even make it to the hatchling stage because raccoons and opossums destroy the nests.  In some years, it is believed that virtually all of the snapper eggs are destroyed in this manner.

  Our turtle in hand, probably a female by the looks of her (ask me how I know sometime), made it past the pitfalls of development and laboriously dug itself out of the ground into the cruel world above. We can only hope that the rest of her nest mates were equally successful. Oddly enough, in colder climes some snapper young actually chose to overwinter in the nest and wait until the following spring to emerge.  Most of our S.E. Michigan turtles come out in the fall, however.

  At this stage of growth, you’ll see that she is about one inch in diameter – egg sized, in other words.  Her face and upper shell are covered with dried mud and her shell is flexible and leather hard.  While in the egg, her tremendous tail was wrapped once around the body and yolk sac, but now is free to trail on the ground (or flail in the air in this case). Upon hatching, a large yellow yolk sac was still attached to the belly and a tiny white egg tooth (for tearing open the shell) adorned her nose.  Now, a week after hatching, the egg tooth is gone and the sac re-absorbed.  The yolk sac scar is still plainly visible between the plates of her ridiculously small bottom shell (here, look at it again).  Soon the soft spot will disappear under the protection of the bony plates and the turtle’s bellybutton will fade into memory.

 Soon after this picture was taken, the turtling was released to the relative safety of the marsh.  I say “relative” because there are a lot more hungry mouths awaiting such a succulent little snack. Great blue herons, largemouth bass, mink, and even muskrats find the tender little snappers to be valid meal options. She will wisely seek the safety of the mucky bottom and hibernate there through the winter. 

  Hopefully, the next time we see her it will be a few years down the line and she’ll have added a little heft to her frame.  She will, at that point, no longer tolerate our handling and demonstrate in no uncertain terms why she is called a snapping turtle.

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