Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 30, 2007

A Witches’ Bloom

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:05 pm

 When asked whether she was a good witch or a bad witch, Dorothy from Kansas replied that she was not a witch at all.  “Witches are mean and ugly,” she scowled. The one who asked her this was indeed a witch herself – a good and beautiful one to boot.  Dorothy could be excused for not knowing that there was such a thing as a good witch because she was, after all, from Kansas. There are no good witches in Kansas.  They live in the forested parts of the eastern U.S. and although they can be explosive at times, they are providers of healing tinctures of great value.  They also sooth hemorrhoids.

  The beneficial healer of which I speak is none other than Witch Hazel. No, not the green hag who chased Bugs Bunny in the classic Warner Brother cartoons, but the slightly ugly yet good plant.  One look at this understory tree in late October (see here) will immediately reveal that there is something odd and magical about it.  A shrubby multi-stemmed tree, the Witch Hazel chooses to bloom long after all other plants have gone to seed in late fall and early winter. The stringy yellow flowers are constructed of four confetti-like petals befitting a bloom of the witching time. These odd looking blossoms last for several weeks and do not shy away from the killing frosts of the season. When things get too cold, they simply curl up to protect their private parts and unfurl in the warmth of the daytime sun. 

  All healers should be mystical, but why bother with the winter flower thing? The reason appears to be quite simple: they are the only store open for nectar loving insects. Most insects are dead by this time, but many flies, members of the wasp family, and a few beetles are still tooling about.  The only place where they can satisfy their hunger for sweets is that crummy looking shack down by the railroad tracks operated by wart nosed hag called Hazel.  “If you don’t like the food,” she hisses,” then hit the road because this is the only joint open. What’ll it be?” The menu is limited to pollen and watered down nectar.

  The most frequent customers are diminutive Fungus Gnats.  In the process of licking away at the scant amount of nectar, or nibbling on pollen, they manage to cross pollinate the other flowers.  Thanks to the patronage of the late season crowd, the flowers are able to develop into hard seed capsules. It takes an entire year to finish the process.  Take a look at this detail photo and you can see these maturing capsules right next to the newly opened crop of flower clusters.  True to their off beat nature, Witch Hazels have developed an explosive way to send their seeds out into the world.  These capsules build up internal pressure until they literally pop open and send their seeds on an airborne journey.  Emitting an audible “pop”, each pod ejects two shiny brown seeds which are each about the size of an apple seed.  Although a journey of 10 to 20 feet is normal, some records indicate that seeds have been propelled up to 10 yards away. Be careful when you step near Hazel’s place on a sunny October day, she will shoot at you!

  It certainly spoils our fun to look deeper at the name of this ballistic plant, but I’ll risk it.  You see, “witch” actually comes from the old English “wiche” which means to bend.  “Hazel” comes from the fact that the leaves look like those of the Hazel – a nut bearing shrub of equal size.  “Pliable Fake Nut Bush” doesn’t quite cut it. I much prefer the mythical connotation because it does truly deserve it. Apart from all the mysterious flowering and seed ways, the stem and leaves are ancient sources for medication. As a modern ingredient in a plethora of lotions, astringent pads (this is where the hemorrhoids come in), and alcohol based curatives, Witch Hazel is a common drugstore product.

  As if all this wasn’t enough, this plant has one more mythical association. Water Witchers, those who claim the ability to locate well water sites, often use the pliable stems of Witch Hazel to ply their craft.  It seems that the plant itself has no power to discern water, but it is the operator that supplies the magic in this case. 

  There is plenty of the wonderful and good to be found within the Witches’ Hazel and so it is good for thee to seek it out for the benefit of both thine eye and thine bottom.

October 28, 2007

Vulture Culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:17 am

   Officially, there were nearly 8,000 Turkey Vultures crossing over the Detroit River into S.E. Michigan on Oct. 25.  “Unofficially,” there was a whole bunch of ‘em.  It was a beautiful blue October day with puffy clouds riding on moderate Northeastern winds.  The vultures have been cruising south since the beginning of the month with nearly 60,000 recorded to date.  At the Hawk count site at Lake Erie Metropark hawkwatchers click them off on their counters as the birds glide over the river from the Canadian side.  This particular day wasn’t a record day, but to folks like Mike and Jim that didn’t matter in the least. 

   Mike isn’t a birdwatcher or a hawk counter, but is a keen observer of nature.  He cuts grass and does general grounds maintenance at the Metropark. When he rode up behind me in his huge mowing rig, about mid-afternoon, I stepped to the side to let him pass. His machine pulled up alongside and he beckoned me over.  “You wouldn’t believe what I saw today,” he yelled out.  After pulling out his ear plugs, his voice lowered to an excited twitter. “While you were inside earlier, the sky was full of vultures – I mean full.  They were everywhere.”  He enthusiastically waved his hand in an arc that spanned from horizon to horizon. “They were coming in and they’d circle, you know, and it was like they were waiting until the other ones caught up – like they were saying ‘come on let’s go.’ I‘ve never seen anything like it before.  Gerry, I kid you not; I had to stop the mower because I kept looking up. Don’t tell anyone, but I didn’t want to run anything over, you know.  I can honestly say that I saw over 2,000 birds in that short time.  It was incredible.”

  While we talked, vultures were still coming over in a living stream and kettling off in the distance.  Dozens of Red-tailed Hawks were mixed into the stream (722 made the official daily count), along with a few Sharp-shinned Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks (126 were sighted).  We talked a few moments about these other birds as they were sighted, but the vultures definitely stole the show.

  Mike’s whole demeanor was like that of a kid in a candy store and he’s no kid.  I just returned from a short walk and saw several hundred of the birds flying over, but missed the big flight earlier in the day.  I too was excited, but not nearly to the degree that Mike was.  His animation and wonder reminded me that these kinds of things should never be taken for granted.

  Jim, a regular park visitor with an intense interest in all things natural, wrote me an e-mail later in the day.  He’d seen a big group of birds circling over a nearby park in the vicinity of King Road and was curious where they were landing.  Toward evening, vultures seek roosting spots to spend the night since they don’t fly without the aide of the sun’s warmth.  Jokingly he said “I expected to find them over a Wildebeest kill,” like the African vultures on the Discovery Channel.  Instead, he found them roosting in a tree and was shocked that the nearby kids weren’t paying any attention to them at all.  “As a kid, you couldn’t keep me away (from something like that).” Jim, like Mike, is no kid. Again, I am prompted to tip my hat and declare my admiration for curiosity well rewarded. Both of these gentlemen are here to remind us why we look up into the sky.

  No photo can do justice to our fantastic autumn vulture flights, but here’s one that will at least give you an idea.  In the air, there is no more graceful a figure than a Turkey Vulture (see a more detailed view here).  As masters of the wind they need only minor flicks of their 6 foot wingspan to maintain aerial suspension.  What makes all this even more fascinating is that up close and personal, there is nothing uglier than a Turkey Vulture.  One look at this picture will confirm this observation. Either way, whether in reaction to their supreme ugliness or to their unrivaled aeronautical beauty, take some time to join Mike, Jim and I in simply saying “Wow.”

October 25, 2007

Stop and Smell the Sassafras

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 pm

  I suppose it was a dream.  I mean, I know it was, but it seemed so real. There we were in a grand room festooned with elaborate tapestries.  A Cajun chef was sitting at the far end and next to him was a frilly old Englishman named Mr. Wilmont. Don’t ask me how I know these things -you just take such facts for granted when dreaming.  The Englishman sorta looked like William Shakespeare and the chef resembled my grade school principal.  Oddly enough, my real principle was a large Greek man, but no matter. The entity to my left was a giant caterpillar with black, white and yellow stripes and two tremendous fake eyes on his back.  I think the large larva was sitting, but didn’t feel comfortable turning around to confirm my belief. He was mumbling some incoherent phrase over and over again.

   I’m not sure why I was there at the table with the trio. They didn’t pay any attention to me anyway.  It’s a good thing, because for some reason I was wearing pajamas with a very embarrassing rip in the crotch.  Gradually I realized that the discussion was revolving around a small potted tree called a Sassafras.  The Brit kept saying “none,” the Cajun “one,” and the caterpillar kept monotonously repeating the word “toof.” All were gesturing toward the leaves of the tiny tree sitting in the middle of the table.  At that moment I woke up.

  I was, you see, looking up some background information about the Sassafras tree last night and must have looked at one too many web sites before crawling off to dreamland.  This shrubby tree has long been a favorite of mine, and I renewed my acquaintance with one yesterday. Glowing with buttery saffron radiance, the autumn leaves are unmatched by even the fiery reds of the maples.  I ripped off a few of the stunning leaves and crushed the living tar out of them. Then, lifting the mangled mass to my nostrils, I inhaled deeply to take in the wonderful lemony smell.  Taking a scent pause with a few Sassafras leaves is better therapy than stopping to smell the roses.

 I should have left it at that.  They smell good, and that’s enough.  No, I had to take it one step further and “document” the leaves by taking a picture.  It was not enough to just snap an autumn calendar scene, either; I had to take a view that showed the three types of leaves found on this tree. It took a while, but here it is.  You will note that the leaf furthest to the left has a simple elliptical shape, the one next to it has two side lobes, and the third to the right looks like a mitt.  I prefer the Michigan shaped leaf myself, but the Sassafras can’t make up its mind and produces all three types equally.  This was undoubtedly the subject my nighttime friends were discussing.  They were all correct regarding the subject of lobes, although the caterpillar’s odd version of “two” resulted from his sideways mouth movement.

  Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars feed on the leaves of Sassafras and can be found on the trees in late summer. The larvae roll themselves up in the leaf as a day shelter and their large fake eyespots serve to frighten inquisitive birds who pry the resting spot open. So, having a giant caterpillar sitting in on the table talk makes sense in a dreamy sort of way, but the Englishman’s presence was more of a stretch.

  One of the useless facts I uncovered was an early reference to a Sassafras tree in the garden of a Mr. Wilmont in 1633 England.  That was it – a lone fact in a sea of knowledge. Here’s an early engraving of a Sassafras dating from that early time.  This is the image that no doubt inspired my vision of the tiny potted tree on the table. It is fascinating to know, however, that the whole reason this American tree was featured in English gardens and botanical books was due to its many charming qualities.  The plant was widely exported to the Old World from the New. Every part of the sassafras was, and still is, utilized. Sassafras root bark was used for making tea and root beer, the wood yielded yellow dye, and the leaves flavored effervescent drinks.  A whole host of medicinal qualities are attributed to the magic tree.

  Crushed Sassafras leaves are used today as a thickening agent in Louisiana dishes – this is where the Greek Cajun guy comes into the dreamscape. Sassafras powder is called file (pronounced fee-lay) and it is a crucial ingredient in making gumbo.  I watched an episode of Alton Brown’s food channel show one time where he visited a File maker near Baton Rouge. The guy was dumping handfuls of dried Sassafras leaves into a large wooden trough and pummeling them with a masher until they were rendered into dust.  This dust was mixed with a few secret ingredients and packaged as gen-u-ine Fee-lay.

  Alton scooped out a handful of the raw product and savored the juicy fruit/eucalyptus/lemony aroma as we, the television audience, looked on.  I just want you to know that you can do the same thing right here in S.E. Michigan, but do it quickly before the leaves fall.

  Now that I have this Sassafras thing out of my head, I wonder if that talking bobcat will re-appear in my dream tonight.

October 23, 2007

Respect Your Elders

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

  If you are looking for a conversation starter next time you are out mixing it up with the populous, just mention Box Elder Bugs.  A simple question-statement like “How about those Box Elder Bugs, eh?”- assuming it is brought up at an appropriate time -is bound to create a fruitful follow up response.  If you are talking to the fellow you just rear-ended with your car or a federal judge, you’d better stick to the matter at hand, but otherwise give it a try. Some people may stare back in a few moments of confused silence before offering “it sure was a shame that they didn’t make it to the series this year.” Others may feign a sudden interest in tying their Velcro shoes or politely back away. I am willing to bet that a majority of locals will respond with a knowing retort like “Oh, those things – they’re all over the side of my house,” or “there sure seems to be a lot of them this year.” 

  Box Elder Bugs are those ½ inch long black & red insects that seem to appear out of thin air when cooler weather arrives (take a look here and see if you don’t recognize one). About the time our northern trees become nude, the “bugs” begin to assemble in huge masses around our living spaces.  They don’t hurt people or harm small pets.  They are neither repulsive nor beautiful. They just kinda hang around and prompt us to wonder where they came from and why they exist. Now that I think of it, many of us have a similar reaction to Paris Hilton.  At least we can show some respect for the bug!

  Being a “true bug,” of the insect family Hemiptera, they truly deserve the “bug” name. While box elder bugs will occasionally feed on ash, silver maple, and even apple sap, they spend most of their time on Box Elder trees. This eliminates any mystery surrounding their name. The Box Elder tree is shrubby member of the maple clan that can be found growing in nearly every ditch and waste lot in the central U.S. (Take a look here at this link if you want to know more about the tree and how to identify it).  Unfortunately, the tree itself is graced with a confusing name. Someone thought that it looked like an Old World Elder tree that possessed yellow wood similar to that of a another tree called Boxwood and cleverly put the two names together (kinda like naming someone after a French hotel).  Distracting name aside, it is important to know that the bug in question prefers blonds -which is a confusing way to say that these insects only feed on female elder trees.

  Over the course of the year, the bugs drink the sap issuing from the tender parts of the growing plant such as leaves, new stems and seed pods. They hatch together and feed together.  By the end of the growing year, the nymphs will have shed five times to reach adulthood.  Shortening daylight hours spark an over whelming collective urge to then gather around the lower portion of the tree trunk.  The primary point of conversation now turns to angst over overwintering plans until somebody finally figures out that they have functional wings. Soon everyone takes off to find a hibernation spot. This is where they enter our sphere of existence.

  At this point, some of you may be thinking that a good way to get rid of the annoying presence of fall Box Elder Bugs is to get rid of all the female Box Elder trees in your yard.  This, in fact, seems like a great idea until you realize that the bugs can fly up to two miles away from their host tree if necessary.  Even if you succeed in wiping out every female Box Elder in the neighborhood, you’ll always be within a few miles of another one.  Besides, do you really want to be responsible for creating a grove of unhappy male trees?  No, the only way to stop the bug is to eliminate our houses.

  The bugs seek out the protective nooks and crannies offered by our human overwintering structures otherwise known as our homes.  Shingles, wall spaces and eaves provide perfect locations to get in out of the weather and pass the frigid season in relative comfort.  Even the most septic of aluminum-sided four bedroom ranches offer innumerable hidden micro sites. Usually, the insects choose a location with a south or west exposure so they can emerge on occasion to bask in the late season sun.  

  So, if you are confronted with a herd of these black and red insects about your house, understand where they are coming from.  Don’t waste time or pesticides on this neutral little bug, but do incorporate them into your daily conversation. Go ahead and shoo away those few that get into your house, but tolerate their existence. They’ll leave next spring and won’t return until next fall. They seek only shelter and ask only that you respect your elders.

October 21, 2007

Those Orphan Nuts

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:56 pm

    Like unwanted kittens set upon a neighbor’s doorstep, the boxes of walnuts sit along the edge of our autumn roads. Crudely written letters scrawled across one side say “FREE” and beckon passersby to adopt the contents of the stained cardboard container.  Too big to ignore but too messy to process, many guilt-ridden homeowners rake up the green nut husks and put them out for adoption. These are the orphan black walnuts- the unwanted ones that mess up our cultured yards. 

  “They’re messy,” is the usual response of black walnut tree owners, “but someone out there can make use of the nuts.  I don’t have the time.”  This is where the guilt comes in.  The fact that folks will offer up their harvest acknowledges a deeper knowledge that Black Walnuts are valuable in some way; otherwise they’d simply bag them and throw ‘em out with the trash.

   The beautiful chocolate brown wood is perhaps the best known product from this tree. The rich heartwood was the historical standard timber used for making gunstocks, furniture, and even coffins.  Take a look at this photo and see if you can identify the walnut wood item that is above the rifle gunstock -the gun stock is stripped of its brass furniture. (Send me some answers and I’ll post it as a comment.)

   Black Walnuts are sturdy bottomland trees that are easily identified by their long compound leaves (a stalk with many leaflets), dark furrowed bark, and hard corrugated nuts (see a nice old botanical illustration here). Often the trees grow together in relatively open groves.  Their roots emit a toxin called Juglone (5-hydroxy-alphanapthaquinone in case you want to know) which discourages plants from growing within 50-60 feet of the trunk.  In mid October, the trees are best identified by their lack of leaves – they are among the first to shed – and by their crop of nuts encased within tennis ball like husks.

  I have processed the walnuts in my yard many times, so I can attest to the messy part of the task. Now I simply leave the nuts to the squirrels and they are more than willing to give them a good home. I’d challenge anyone, however, who hasn’t processed a few black walnuts to try it this season. If you don’t have walnuts in your yard or on your property, go ahead and take in a few of those boxes and give it a go. To do so taps into a time honored tradition.

  Getting at the nut involves removing the fleshy husk.  Each nut is enveloped in a protective green skin (take a look at a drawing I did of an un-husked nut). Normally, this husk rots away or is rendered into a black gooey soup by the larvae of the Walnut fly – either way; the mature nut is freed from its casing. Squirrels deftly peel the husk with a few simple moves, but people have more a challenge.

  There are as many ways to de-husk a walnut as there are to skin a cat.  Rolling them underfoot is a good way, although some will scatter them over the driveway and run them over with a car or truck (this automobile is normally over 6 years old and almost never a BMW). My preferred method is to drill a 2 inch hole in a board, place the whole husk over hole and drive it through with a hammer.  With this method, the nut goes through and the husk is left behind. If all else fails, put on a pair of rubber gloves and break open the husks and shuck them like corn.

  No matter how you husk them, always wear gloves when handling fresh walnuts.  The liquid sap turns dark brown upon contact with the air and permanently stains anything it comes in contact with. Walnut husk dyes were used by natives and settlers to give their cloth a rich yellow & mocha brown hue and walnut inks were used to scribe many an old time letter. You can replicate the old ways and make your own dyestuff or ink by soaking the husks in water for several days.  Boil down the contents and filter the resulting brew through some cheesecloth and you’ll have the essence of walnut ready to be employed.

  Once those nuts are husked, plunk them into a bucket of water to rinse them a bit. The bad
nuts will bob to the surface, so this is a good way to cull them out (don’t want no bad nuts lying about!).  Lay the rest out to dry and store them in a basket or burlap bag out in the garage until the time is right.

  Traditionally, Christmas time is the “right time” to break open the nuts and they should be ready for the final step in the nutting process. A hammer and a strong arm is necessary to crack open these well armored packages. The nut meats do not come out cleanly, like English Walnuts, because they are lobed and are well encased.  You will pretty much have to obliterate the nut shell with several mighty whacks before exposing all the meat.  Plink out the pieces with a nut pick and you’ll be rewarded with a precious little cup of walnuts to mix in with a batch of brownies.

  I have the feeling that some of you, perhaps most of you, will not take me up on my nutty challenge but that’s alright. All I ask is that you do a double take and give thoughtful consideration when you next pass a box of lonely nuts.

October 18, 2007

Mussel Power

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:05 pm

  Not recalling the last time I was contacted by a Japanese Television station, I eagerly answered the call from a station representative.  “We are to do a documentary on the Zebra Mussel,” the polite female voice at the other end of the line stated,” and we wish to know if we can find them at Lake Erie Metropark.”  The film crew was flying in from Japan the following week and they were setting up location shoots.  I answered that the recent low water and other factors had greatly reduced the availability of near shore zebra mussels, but I’d scope out the situation.

  A dutiful trip out to the Erie shore yielded only four live mussels and one pitiful colony cluster left high and dry by a wind tide.  I found myself getting a bit distressed due to the lack of alien species, so I carefully collected some of the live ones as if they were rare biological treasures.  This was for the edification of millions of Japanese citizens, after all, and I didn’t want to be the one to let them down. I did send them pictures of some fresh specimens (see here in profile) to prove they existed.

  A call to the production company a few days later found me revealing that there were no giant colonies to show off, but that I could provide some specimens for live photography.  Igume, that was the phone voice’s name, politely said “forget it” and informed me that they found someplace else that had “bunches of them.”  My big opportunity to break into the foreign media market was immediately crushed. I almost asked for a second chance, but took it like a man.

  In retrospect, the odd thing about this whole affair was that I was actually saddened by the lack of zebra mussels. It was, in fact, very strange that I even had to search for them in the first place. Zebra Mussels came into the Great Lakes in the 1980’s via the ballast water dumped by ocean going vessels originating from the Caspian and Black Seas of Europe.  The introduced zebra mussels thrived in our warm near shore waters and began to show up in the Detroit River and Lake Erie by 1988. Within a few years they exploded to the point were they covered every solid surface under the water and clogged city water intakes.  We, of the lower lakes, were at the epicenter of this explosion. The horrible threat of an ecological calamity reared its ugly head and the critters were daily headline material.

  Now, many decades later, they are no longer front-page news.  Lake visitors don’t notice them, power companies make it a regular thing to scour their water intakes, and our local piers are not encrusted at the water line like they once were.  The problem has not gone away, but the perceptions of it have changed.  So, what gives after twenty years of occupation? According to most reports, the regional population has stabilized and is actually going down in some areas (although they are still spreading like wildfire into western waters).

  While in the process of collecting for the “Mussels for Media” campaign, a fellow walked over to me and asked what I was doing.  His response, once told, was “Oh, I hear that they have cleaned up the lakes.”  I explained that this phenomenon wasn’t necessarily a good thing and the Zebra mussel negatives still far outweigh the positives. 

  Now, it is true that there are a few slightly positive effects of this alien invasion. Some studies indicate that mussel eating ducks like bluebills and goldeneyes eat the zebra fare like there’s no tomorrow.  Some bluebills stomachs were 99% full of zebra mussels.  The mussel-clarified water has allowed deeper penetration of sunlight to increase plant growth – providing more food for the likes of the Canvasback ducks that come here to feast on water celery. The price paid by hosting two decades of zebra mussels is a steep one, however.

  First of all, the perception that clean water is good water isn’t really true.  Zebra mussels are filter feeders, which means they constantly strain organics out of the water (look here at a live mussel, embedded in sediment, and notice the two openings called siphons which suck in and expel water).  The action of millions of these tiny aquarium filters clarifies the water by removing the tiny suspended algae particles which normally clouded it. This clouded water contains the nutritious soup that native animals like microscopic zooplankton depend on.

  To make things worse, zebra mussels are finicky eaters and they literally spit out a type of potentially toxic blue green algae called Microcystis.  By doing so, this population of this bad alga is enhanced well above normal levels.  Another type of stringy algae, called Cladophora, also benefits from the immense pile of droppings given off by beds of mussels.  These plants then wash up as huge mats onto our beaches.

  Perhaps the largest ecological effect to date is the most subtle. There are over 40 species of native mussels that call our waters home and these poor fellows have taken a devastating hit.  Not only do both the native and non-native creatures feed on the same material, but the pesky foreigners colonize the larger native shells and choke off their food supply. Many species of North American mussels (or clams, if you wish) are becoming rare because of this.

  In short, even though the excitement of the original invasion has died down, the daily pressure from Zebra Mussels has completely re-shaped the waterscape. They are here to stay. We can only hold our collective breath and see what becomes “normal” over the next few decades.

October 16, 2007

Berries White, Birds in Sight

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:13 pm

   There is an old adage that says “berries white, take flight.”  The idea was to keep naive city folk from eating poisonous berries.  Like most riddles of their sort they are mostly right, but wrong enough not to use too often.  You simply can’t run away from every ivory colored fruit and call yourself a sane human being. First of all, berries do not attack people and white berries in particular aren’t necessarily bad.  The berries of the Red-Panicled Dogwood and the Poison Ivy are good examples of this.

  The white berries of the Poison Ivy (see here) are certainly anti-people.  All parts of the plant contain the irritant urushiol and both the hairy stem and fruit carry on their poisonous ways long after the leaves have fallen to earth (those leaves of “leaflets three, let it be” fame, by the way).  Eating these berries can be a lethal experience for a human being.  So, here’s a simple riddle to remember: Don’t eat Poison ivy berries.  O.K., it doesn’t rhyme, but the point is pretty direct – the word “poison” should be enough.

  Poison ivy berries are not “bad,” however.  The noxious little fruits are an important natural wildlife food source. Animals not only eat them with impunity, they love ‘em. Over sixty species of birds eat them as a regular part of their diet.  One bird in particular, the Yellow-rumped Warbler (see here) is especially fond of the fruit.  Insect eaters during the summer, these colorful little butter butts turn into vegetarians during the winter.  They will stay in our northern climes as long as there is available food.  Bumper crops of poison ivy berries will usually forecast a healthy population of winter warblers to come.

  Yellow rumps have a hankering for waxy fruit and can digest them with ease. Out east, the waxy myrtle berries are preferred, but here the poison ivy ranks high on their list. 

  The non-poisonous fruits of the Red-Panicled Dogwood (see here) also serve as wildlife food. Birds and other wildlife depend on them for cold season sustenance and wintering flocks of robins practically owe their existence to them. The berries are not poisonous to people, but aren’t really edible either. “Berries white, quite a sight” might be a nice ditty to sum up the relationship between us and the berries in question. Native peoples have long used the bark of this shrub for medicines or a smoking mix called Kinnikinnick, but the berries were left to their own. These shrubby dogwoods are very common in our region and their purplish fall color contrasts nicely with their white fruit clusters.  They are a treat for the eyes.

  The striking visual quality of the dogwood is accentuated by the bright red stalk that supports the berry cluster. This part is called the panicle and is the source of the plant’s name. Other common names are Gray Dogwood and Northern Swamp Dogwood, but none of these have the appeal of the more sophisticated title. 

  In terms of human use these two white berry types appear to have very little practical value, but esthetically they have much to offer.  Both Poison Ivy and Red-Panicled Dogwood berries act like bird seeds – wherever they plant themselves beautiful birds are sure to sprout.“Berries white, birds in sight” would be a very appropriate motto to consider here. 

October 14, 2007

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:47 pm

  The sight of ten thousand blackbirds darkening the autumn sky during migration can be an awe inspiring site.  Usually we see these mega flocks engaged in complex flight maneuvers over a distant cornfield, but it’s not uncommon to find our yards invaded by one of the hordes. When in the midst of such a foraging flock of feathered fall fowl the cacophony of life can be humbling and deafening. Rather than invoke Hitchcockian images, however, I’d like to present a few seasonal blackbird flock watching tips and give your mind a few things to do while your eyes are engaged.

  First of all, there is no such thing as a plain ‘blackbird,” so there is no such thing as a flock of ‘em.  The fall flocks are actually made up of many different kinds of blackbirds and the largest flocks are simply made up of black birds.  Birds of a feather do flock together, but they don’t all have to be of the same exact feather. 

  True blackbirds are in a North American family called Icteridae.  It’s a diverse bunch containing grackles, cowbirds, and red-wing blackbirds.  Most of them are mostly black, but several are extremely bright in color.  The yellow-breasted Meadowlarks and the fire orange Baltimore Orioles are members of this family also.  Although their iridescent hues and patches of color are anything but plain, the mostly black blackbirds are the ones that gather into large groups.

  Oddly enough, the big number birds in any blackbird flock aren’t really blackbirds at all, because they go to a different family reunion. They are members of a group called the Sturnidae, but we know them better as Starlings. 

  Within any gang of migrants, then, you are apt to see four different kinds of “birds of a darker nature.” There are a few others, but the big four are common summer residents.

  Common grackles (see here) are the largest of the bunch at 12 inches in length.  They have long tails, long black beaks and bright yellow eyes (a trait that gives them an especially mischievous look).  The females are basically brown, but have the same body plan. If you hear individual birds creaking like a rusty gate, then you are hearing grackles.

  Red-winged Blackbirds (see here a photo from a “Birds of Eastern Washington” website) don’t show much of their bright red shoulder epaulettes in the fall and their rich black feathering is speckled with brown. Overall, they appear as smaller versions of the grackles when in flight. The females are streaked brown.  Red-wings utter a worrisome “check check” call when flocking.

  Brown-headed Cowbirds (see here a picture from the thinkquest web site) are smaller than the Red-wings and have conical bills rather than the pointy ones possessed by the first two mentioned blackbirds. The males have brown heads (obtained from following cattle too closely perhaps?) and a black body.  The females are, as you’ve probably guessed by now, brown.  Their bubbly “twoleep” call will be overwhelmed by the other birds, so don’t bother listening for it.

  Last, and certainly least in the minds of some folks, are the Starlings.  The best way to tell if you are viewing a bunch of these birds is to note their very short tails (see here- a picture by Christopher Gunn).  They are about 6 inches long, have long beaks, and are wonderfully speckled when in fall color.  Starlings probably out number all the other birds combined and, although they take part in this fall frenzy thing, many stay here throughout the winter. 

  Starlings originally came from Europe, which is why they are listed in the bird guides as European Starlings (go figure).   We can thank William Shakespeare for their introduction to the New World, although he didn’t do it personally.  Over a century ago, some dedicated literary fans decided to release into North America all the birds mentioned by the bard.  Since Starlings figure in his prose, 100 of them were released in 1890 into Central Park within New York City. These birds went forth and multiplied and now number in the millions.

  In Denmark, where native starlings gather by the millions to travel toward Africa, their dense ball-like flocks are called “sorta sol” or black suns. The first French explorers and voyageurs in this area noted large populations of “starlings” around Lake Erie two hundred years ago, but they were actually referring to our native blackbirds – mostly red-winged blackbirds.  All of our fall flockers form black sun groups.

  These huge gatherings function almost as living beings in and of themselves- ebbing and flowing like a school of fish.  Each bird keeps his distance from the ones nearest it and can turn and dive in complete synchrony.  A phenomenon, which I have un-euphoniously dubbed the “hawk ball,” is an example of this group coordination. When a hawk is spotted, the birds will actually approach the potential danger rather than flee it. They form themselves into a tight ball formation and keep pace with the predator while it is in their air space.  The idea is to overwhelm the bird and make it difficult to target any individual within the flock.  This tactic usually works, but I once witnessed a wily Cooper’s hawk dart straight up into a “hawk ball” of starlings and fly away with one in his talons.

  Aside from the safety in numbers idea, there is one more thing that brings dark birds together – food.  Migrants groups are infamous for their crop raiding abilities and will descend onto a cultivated field of small grain and render it asunder. Group feeding acts to thoroughly glean all the food resources from a relatively small area.  One can see why farmers aren’t especially happy to see these feathery fall harvest gatherings.

  Jacque Lery, in his 1749 journal, recorded that there were so many blackbirds issuing from the marshes on the French side of Lake St. Clair (Ontario) that he doubted that any grain crop could survive.  The birds did so much damage that he doubted that the small settlement there could survive.  That small settlement is Windsor today.  Thank goodness the casinos pulled the community through, eh?

October 12, 2007

The Right Fluff

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:27 pm

   Like every other American on the home front during World War II, a young Sam Gay wanted to do his part.  “We were told to do things to help the war effort and we did them.  Our family saved fat, rubber and even the little pieces of tin foil packaging on gum sticks.  We’d bring them down to a collection point in town and that was that – we never knew whether they were used or not.”  Among the products Sam collected for his national uncle was milkweed floss. The plants flourished along the weedy edges the family farm near Rockwood and the pods yielded up their fluffy crop in October (see here).  

  Sam, along with thousands of other children, ended up contributing 11 million pounds of the stuff by war’s end.  Answering the call that “two bags save one life,” he was aware that the milkweed floss was needed to fill the life vests needed by servicemen.  This native fluff literally filled the void left when kapok, the preferred stuffing material, became unavailable due to the Japanese activities in the Pacific.  Kapok came from the Dutch West Indies.

  War products researchers hit the labs to find a suitable substitute and milkweed fibers rose to the surface.  Scientists also learned that the insulation quality of the material was superior to goose down.  Ironically, the floss was originally developed by nature to serve as parachute material.  The silky fiber tufts are meant to catch the air and transport their seeds aloft via the four winds. Packed neatly within the pods, the seeds are layered like the scales on a pine cone (see here) and are liberated for their task once the pods split open.

  Another superior stuffing product that came to light during the war was Cattail down.  Sam Gay’s farm bordered the Lake Erie shore and acres of cattails were available, but he was never prompted to collect any of them as a “war effort resource.” Today, not far from his home, cattails heads are currently changing over into their fluffy fall wardrobe. Each cattail head contains over 200,000 tiny seeds which are equipped with parachute fibers similar to those on the milkweed seeds, only in miniature (see here). Autumn winds will strip the heads of their fluffy crop and distribute the seeds over the landscape.    

  Cattail down had been used for centuries by Native Americans to line their moccasins and wrap their baby bottoms and European settlers adopted it for stuffing their dolls and quilts. It was far from a new-fangled product when called to the battlefront, but it had fallen out of use in civilized society. The U.S. Navy used cattail fibers to stuff life belts and aviation jackets – alongside milkweed fluff. The product, called “Swamp down,” was proven to maintain its buoyancy even after 100 hours of submersion.

  For a brief time in the mid 1940’s the fluff was even used commercially to fill cushions and baseballs, but the end of the war ended our national affair with this native material.  In the postwar years, synthetic fibers replaced milkweed, cattail, and the original Kapok as the primary insulation and buoyancy material.  There is at least one modern company out there attempting to commercialize milkweed fibers as a non-allergenic alternative to synthetics and waterfowl down, so the potential of such native plants has not been entirely forsaken.

  Fall is the time to recall, however, how many lives were saved by these two common plants. During a time of great need they were there to serve. “It takes an old guy like me to tell you young guys about these things,” concluded Mr. Gay.  I agree – let’s pass it on.

October 10, 2007

Le Geai Bleu

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 pm

  O.K., quick – give me an answer.  What are the two kinds of wild critters that bury acorns in the fall?  Squirrels certainly come to mind quickly as the first response, but the second part of the question might slow you down a bit.  If I say this second critter is blue and according to the Cornell University issues a “bell like tullull call, a melodious whistled teekle, and a variety of chattering, harsh notes and growls,” a chipmunk choking on an acorn is not the correct response. Give up?  The answer is the Blue Jay.

  You will see that there is nary an October tree without a few of them in it and you will hear that presence loudly announced. It is not the blue jay way to be subtle about anything. Their loud calls, aside from the Cornell listed ones, include everything from the typical “Jay, Jay” or “Jeer, Jeer” to a very well executed imitation of the scream of a Red-shouldered Hawk.  One of their calls – the so-called tulull call- reminds me of the sound of a rotary dial on a vintage telephone (you know, the ones that didn’t take pictures).

  To date, scientists don’t know why jays scream like hawks – perhaps it’s their version of a prank call to scare the little birds.  Geesh, maybe they really are dialing a phone!  But scientists do know why they target oak trees.  Blue jays harvest the acorns and save them for spring use. They are known as “scatter hoarders” which is a frightening way to say they save their acorns all over the place rather than put them in one basket. These bold blue birds pry off a few nuts and carry them off to a forest edge or tree line.  There they push them into the ground, but not together.  Each is put into a separate location – thus the caches are scattered over a wide area.

  Jays are finicky when it comes to their acorns.  Not just any old nut will do.  Studies have shown jays prefer small acorns such as those from the Pin Oak and other members of the Black Oak group. Small acorns fit nicely in the bill and black oak acorns don’t germinate until spring. This latter fact is very important when you consider that white oak acorns have a tendency to germinate the second they are put into the ground.  It’s good to know your emergency food will still be in its package when you retrieve it in late winter/early spring. By that time, the tannic acids which render the black oak acorns bitter, will have leached out as well.  Although the squirrels won’t admit it, these jays know a thing or two about nutting.

  Of course, squirrels can’t afford to wait until spring to eat their buried acorn treasures.  This is their main winter diet.  Blue jays can afford to wait because they can, and will, eat anything from seeds to slow mice.  Early spring is when such food sources are in scarce supply, so the acorns are preserved toward that end. Many jays migrate south and skip the toughest part of winter, but not all of them. 

 In keeping with their complicated persona, Blue Jays exhibit some odd migration patterns as a way to further baffle those scientists trying to figure them out.  Some individuals (the jays, not the scientists) remain resident all year long while others chose to fly south.  Certain birds have proven to fly south one year and elect to stay north the next.  Young birds tend to migrate more, but otherwise there really is no clear cut answer to this riddle.  Taxes don’t seem to make any difference.

 So, I offer a few jay tidbits here to give you something to think about upon spotting the next Blue Jay.  There’s obviously much more hidden within that crested little head than meets the eye – although what meets the eye is very pleasing. I believe most people could pick one out from any bird line-up, but I offer this neat old engraving as an illustration of the bird (see here).  The brash behavior and stunning cerulean hues of these loudmouths made them one of the first North American birds to become well known in Europe. The early naturalists included them in their natural histories as early as the 16th century and they were scientifically described by 1758.

  This illustration dates from around 1790. Even though it was drawn from a London museum specimen, the character of the bird stands out.  I have also included the text that accompanied this figure (look here) and will give a few minutes to read it.  You’ll see that the early works are rather slight on information.  I do appreciate the French name for the blue jay, as listed about mid page: “ Le Geai bleu de  d’Amerique Septentrionale.”   Now that’s name befitting this plucky little Napoleon of a bird.



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