Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 29, 2007

An Immigrant Returns Home

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

 Dr. Eduard Dorsch was one of the so-called “German 48ers” who left Bavaria due to the 1848 war ravaging his native country.  He immigrated to the United States and eventually set up a new life in Monroe County, Michigan as a physician serving the needs of the local German population. The good doctor built a solid Italianate brick house near the public square, fulfilled his career, authored a scholarly work on bullet wounds during the Civil War and engaged in his artistic pursuits as a skilled botanical artist.

  Dorsch was gifted a Ginkgo tree from the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. in 1865 and planted it in a prominent location in his front yard.  Both the doctor and his tree have since become an indelible part of local history.  Today, some 140 plus years later, the doctor’s house serves as part of the Monroe County Library system and his tree still stands in the front yard. A well oxidized brass plaque, situated on a stone at the base of the Ginkgo tree, provides a birth certificate for the tree in question.

  The other half of this immigrant story is the tree itself.  While the Chinese ambassador brought it from the other side of the world, he was actually returning it to its original home. Ginkgos once grew in the lush forests of ancient North America and their branches were parted by passing dinosaurs over 250 million years ago.  In the modern age, these trees were only known as fossils (see here a leaf from an Eocene shale deposit) and believed extinct.  When wild trees were found alive and well in the Chinese hinterlands, their discovery was as significant as that of the Coelacanth. Not only did the modern representatives appear related to their ancient fossil counterparts, they appeared identical.  In all that time they had not diversified or changed one iota. The tree had not risen from the dead – it never died to begin with.

  Although it may have started out as a loner in the new world, the Dorsch Gingko is not the only example of its kind in the region.  Ginkgos are now widely planted as ornamental trees.  They are slow growing, sparsely branched and somewhat pyramidal in shape. One of the easy ways to identify this tree is by looking at their wedge shaped leaves.  In the textbooks this living fossil is called simply Ginkgo biloba because many of the leaves are nearly divided into two lobes by a deep center groove. In honor of Dr. Dorsch’s artistic endeavors, I will provide you a drawing of a fairly typical, although undivided, gingko leaf.  I think you’ll agree that these leaves possess a perfect form and a linear simplicity that defies imitation. This design has stood the test of time and reflects the simple strength of the species over time.  Even when they fall to the ground, they are stunning (see here – looks like one of those art shots you see on the walls of corporate offices doesn’t it?). 

  It is distinctly possible that the Dorsch tree will outlast both the library building and even the city in which it sits. Gingkos can live over 2,500 years, making our stately old oaks look like preschoolers. Like any old timer, these ancient survivors do have their peculiar habits.  The female trees produce the most god-awful smelling pus filled fruit imaginable. When these crabapple sized berries fall, they produce a gelatinous mass of foul goo that happily wedges into every cavity of your shoe sole. The Dorsch tree is a female, unfortunately, and it is far too old to have a sex change operation.  As you can imagine, many ornamental trees are grafted with male branches. Apparently the term gingko means “silver apricot” in Japanese and they view it as a food item in that island nation.  It is strangely appropriate that this tree has medicinal properties that include potential use for treating Alzheimer’s victims, so there might be something to this. I personally think that something is lost in translation, but will leave stinking fruit lie.

  The other odd thing about Ginkgos is that they tend to drop all their leaves at once in the fall.  This characteristic has fueled the annual Dorsch Ginkgo Festival contest in which folks try to pick the exact date when this occurs. Winners receive prizes and all the fruit they can eat. You’re too late to enter this year, but next year could be your chance to achieve long life and prosperity.

November 27, 2007

Do U See ‘der Waxwings

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:40 pm

As far as anyone knows, Icarus was the first and last human waxwing.  There’s a pretty good chance that his first flight would have ended differently had he elected to wait until a cold, cloudy day.  As it turned out, the wax holding his arm feathers in place melted in the bright sun and he tumbled to earth. On a cool cloudy day the wax might have stayed firm and the feathers remained in place.  The poor guy ended up discovering gravity instead. Reportedly, the name inscribed on his tombstone was “Icahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhus”  in honor of his tumble, but was returned to its original length at the request of his family.

  Icarus, even though he was a fictional failure, still influenced the history of aviation.  No one ever tried the waxwing approach ever again. It would be the lot of a couple of bike mechanics to finally defeat gravity with wings of canvas and wood many years later. Orville and Wilber never wasted any time on wax and real bird feathers.  Those brothers from Dayton did get their adjustable wing idea by watching real birds, however.  In retrospect, I believe Icarus was simply watching the wrong birds.  He was probably using Cedar Waxwings for his model, and he paid the price.

  It’s true that Cedar Waxwings aren’t found in the Mediterranean, where that sky tumbling myth man performed his ill-fated experiment, but I consider that a minor detail.  The cedar birds are found in our neck of the woods and they are a common sight this time of year. Although these beautiful little cinnamon hued birds do hang around cedar trees a lot, they are far more common around berry bushes in the wintertime. If you have fruiting ornamentals such as Mountain Ash or Flowering Crab in your yard, chances are pretty good you’ve hosted a waxwing feast or two. Here’s a single bird in the process of downing a frozen crabapple on a recent crispy morning.   

  True to the second half of their name, Waxwings do have bright red “waxy” structures on their wings, but the “wax” is at the tip of the feathers and does not act to hold them in place. The structures are only found on the inner, or secondary, feathers of the wing. Take a look here at this detail drawing to see what I’m talking about. I’ve seen everything from “red secretions” to “wax droplets” used to describe these things, but secreted wax has nothing to do with it.  In reality, these structures are flattened extensions of the main feather shaft. They are so brightly hued and so shiny smooth that they do look like the waxed surface of a Corvette or a set of well manicured nails.

   The coloration of the feather “fingernails” comes from the carotenoid pigments found in the food they eat.  Cedar Waxwings eat a lot of orangish and red fruit (Henry David Thoreau called them cherry birds because of their fondness for that fruit). Scientists have determined that these wing projections come into play during the mating season.  Since older birds have more of these than the younger birds, they believe waxwings pair up based on the number of these decorations. Both male and female birds have them, so they seek partners showing the mark of experience – which means having the maximum number of decorative wing ornaments.

  Another distinctive trait of the Cedar Waxwing, aside from the crest and black face mask, is the yellow tipped tail.  These tail feathers also have small flattened shaft extensions on them.  In the 1960’s, researchers started noticing a few waxwings showing up in the Northeast which had bright orange instead of yellow on the tail (see here). They believe this is the result of eating the red berries from a newly introduced species of Honeysuckle.  You know what they say, you are what you eat.

  As fruit eating birds, Waxwings will occasionally indulge in fermented berries and they have been known to get a bit wobbly – in other words, drunk. Many a waxwing has tumbled out of the sky in Icarusian fashion, not from melting wing wax but as the result of being plastered.

November 25, 2007

John McMaster’s Ink

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:40 pm

 Although it seemed to take longer than usual, the terminal stage of autumn has finally gripped the landscape. A majority of the deciduous country trees have converted to their sparse gray winter persona – leaving the evergreens to liven up the scene. As deciduous trees, the oaks should be shedding their leaves as well, but even a cursory look at any local woodlot will reveal that they are stubborn in this regard. The oaks, represented by many different species, now stand out against the woodland profile as the trees clothed in ruddy foliage. As you drive past newly cut cornfields and gaze across the distance at the passing woodlots, the members of the oak clan are easily spotted. Now, more than ever, you can gain an appreciation of just how “ubique gentium” – widespread or universal – they are.

  Being surrounded by oaks is a good thing, by the way, and I have often waxed poetic on their qualities (using dead languages in the process). The distinctive color of their tenacious November leaves is an additional praise-worthy feature. If it hasn’t been done already, I’d like to name a paint color called “toasted oak leaf” in honor of the dead oak leaf. If the Crayola Company wants to add this shade to their new line of crayons, I’ll not stand in their way (although I might ask for a free box of crayons as payment).  This is what “Toasted Oak Leaf,” copyright 2007, looks like.  I’m talking about the hearty nutmeg leaf shade that takes on the appearance of the well cooked edges of a pumpkin pie. In part, this strong oaky color is imparted by a chemical known as tannin.  While the tannin found in oak bark has long been a crucial element in animal hide processing (thus the use of the word “tanning”), the brown leaf tannin has worked itself into another essential part of our past lives. Allow me to explain.

  I recently picked up a copy of “The Rudiments of the Latin Tongue” by Thomas Ruddiman.  This weathered little tome was published in Philadelphia in 1798 and was originally owned by somebody named John McMaster of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.   John was apparently very proud of his name because he wrote it dozens of times throughout the book.  I know that he bought the book on January 2nd, 1802 because he wrote that down multiple times as well.  I even know that he paid 50 cents for it and that January 6, 1803 was part of a “cold winter”– he only wrote these things once.  Neatly written across the bottom of two pages, our repetitious name dropper penned the words “John McMaster – Aug. 10th, 1805- wrote this with ink of the ink ball” (see here).   This last phrase returns us to the subject of oak leaves.

  Later on in the book, Mr. McMaster awkwardly repeated the same claim at the bottom of the page with “This is the ink of the Ink Ball which this is wrote with” (See here). Somehow I believe that phrase would have looked better in Latin, but I something tells me that John wasn’t paying too much attention to his subject. The point here, and there is one, is that the ink used to deface this book with gentle brown scribbles is derived from oak leaves.  

 From the Late Middle Ages through the mid 19th century, the best quality writing ink was the so-called iron gall ink.  It was made using the concentrated tannin found in Ink Balls, better known as Ink Galls or Oak Apple galls, which are only found on oak tree leaves. In North America these structures are usually found on members of the Black Oak family. A tiny wasp (see here) begins the process in the summer by laying her eggs on the mid rib of the developing oak leaf.  The egg laying location swells up to form a round apple-like gall about 2 inches in diameter (see here) and the grub lives within a capsule at the very center of the gall (see here). Eventually the grub burrows his way out and the gall lies empty by the time fall comes around. As a reaction to the presence of this invader, the leaf concentrates bitter tannins into the structure.

   The old time ink makers gathered these galls and pulverized them. Fermentation or boiling was used to produce the best quality inks. The tannin rich powder was mixed with iron sulfate and Gum Arabic and dissolved in water. The result was a permanent ink that flowed neatly off the end of a quill into such words as “We the People” or “John McMaster, His Book.”

  The gall ink writing that survives to the present day appears brown – just like the new trademarked “toasted” color of the oak leaves, but it was originally black.  John liked his name in black, not subtle brown. Oak gall ink fades to brown over time and slowly absorbs into the paper to form a halo.  Often the acid content actually eats away at the paper and has to be neutralized by museum curators.

  All of this leads us back to the temporary nature of nature itself. Now is the time to appreciate the November oak leaves before they bleach into March blandness. Perhaps this will lead to a small bit of thinking about how different our written history would have been without them. Finally, the sight of these oaks should cause us to cringe as we recall the inane graffiti that we put into our own schoolbooks with fountain, ball point or glitter pen.  Let’s hope you wrote something other than “I’m bored.”

November 23, 2007

A Home for the Holidays

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:28 pm

  One thing I am thankful for this Thanksgiving season is the fact that I played absolutely no part in constructing the dwelling place I currently call home. If I had, my roof would surely have collapsed by now or the bathroom light switch would somehow be needed to operate the kitchen toaster.  No, somebody else put the finishing touches on my place back in 1951 and for the past twenty years all major work has been done by professional hands. I know I could never build any kind of life-sustaining structural element from scratch without using wood glue, duct tape or twist ties. There is no instinctual nest building skill within my persona.

  My thoughts ventured to this topic while visiting my brother-in-law’s house on Thanksgiving Day. As the family gathered around the television to watch the Detroit Lions complete their traditional holiday defeat, my eyes wandered to the back yard and fixed on a squirrel at the 10 yard line (ten yards from the window, that is).  A team of three fox squirrels had been coming and going all afternoon, but my interest was directed at one individual stuffing white oak leaves into his mouth.  After folding over the edges to create a leafy envelope, he scurried up the smooth gray trunk of a beech tree and out of immediate sight.  He appeared moments later and repeated the effort. I stepped outside to follow his route this time and saw that he was adding to a substantial leaf nest about 50 ft from the ground. 

  There was a scattering of snow on the ground and the daytime temperature hovered below freezing.  It would be tempting to assume that the recent influx of winter weather prompted him to create a snug winter retreat, but that would be wrong. Truth is, this squirrel began work on his winter home much earlier in the season. He heeds the heralding call issued by shortening daylight, not ambient temperatures.

  These arboreal rodents do most of their nest building during the summer when the little squirrlets are expected. The warm season nests are the direct instinctual result of long days and short nights inoculated with a fair amount of hormones.  They are loosely constructed affairs, often built far out on the branches to allow for free air flow and ventilation.

    Late in the summer, tighter ball-shaped structures are constructed closer to the trunk or within grape vine tangles. Given the option, most Fox Squirrels will switch to tree cavities as their winter retreat.  A cultured suburban environment offers little in this category, so leaf nests are the norm. These late season affairs adhere to a different set of building codes.  They are typically made of interwoven twigs and leaves with a soft inner liner of dog hair, moss, bark or grasses.  My busy builder was merely adding to his winter home- like putting up the storm windows or changing the furnace filter – the insulated walls were already well done. Unlike the Lion defense against the Packers, this squirrel was performing his home duty with practiced precision.

  In the interest of providing a bit of useless trivia, it might interest you to know that a squirrel nest is officially called a “drey.” This knowledge will come in handy on your next crossword puzzle. The overwintering home of another rodent, the muskrat, has no official name and can be properly called a lodge, a cabin, a den, or a house. These structures are far more impressive than the aerial nests of their furry tailed kin. (O.K., not a great segue, but it was the only way I could get to this next part of the discussion within this limited space).    

  The day before leaving for our Thanksgiving visit, I paid a visit to a little town just south of Monroe – near the mouth of Otter Creek where I-75 crosses it.  Here a muskrat village of impressive proportions has risen from the dead lotus bed there. Take a look here and you’ll see no fewer than nineteen muskrat houses pimpling the shallows within an area of an acre or so.  

  As seen from the vantage point of the South Otter Creek overpass, each lodge is centered in a circle of cleared lotus. They look like meteors lodged within their impact craters.  It is quite obvious that each furry engineer used the plants that were immediately adjacent to their individual construction sites.  They were, in other words, using common -albeit instinctual -sense.

  Muskrats begin building their new houses in mid October and they continue to pile on new layers well into November. They build several kinds of structures, but their winter cabins are the largest and most dramatic. A freshly made lodge often towers four or five feet over the water.  The entire structure is made of alternating layers of muddy bottom debris and cut sections of cat-tail, or in this case, lotus stems and leaves.

  Several entrances are cut into the mass from under the water level and they lead to a series of tunnels and snug chambers within.  A dozen or more ‘rats may take up winter residence in one lodge apartment as long as tempers allow.  These homes will continue to provide solid shelters for a year or more – often far longer than the life of the occupants themselves.

  I’m pretty sure my Fox Squirrel will be secure in his single winter drey and will pass the cold season comfortably on stored acorns and bird feed.

  The Otter Creek Muskrat subdivision, however, is an example of a development doomed to failure. It is the result of too many ‘rats attempting to scratch out a living on too little real estate. Nature’s strict building codes of will be harshly enforced by famine, disease and predation. The ‘rats will be forced into a hardscrabble existence as they compete for limited winter food resources.  A nice warm house for the holidays is one thing, but putting enough turkey on the table is quite another.

November 20, 2007

The Magic Goose

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:45 pm

   I don’t consider myself a lucky person.  Yes, I am lucky to be alive and lucky to have a wife and three fairly normal looking children, but I mean lucky as in “the finder of valuable unclaimed things.”  I normally find broken jewelry and pennies, not dollars and diamonds. I picked up $35 on the ground once, but found out who it belonged to the next day and had to give it back. I was going to give the funds to a charity anyway – really I was.  Earlier this month, however, all that changed and I became a lucky man indeed.  I found a rotten bird leg.

   Tucked back under the boardwalk at Crosswinds Marsh, I spotted a patch of wet matted feathers framing a few articulated leg bones. Initiating the beginning steps in my forensic examination process, I snapped a photo (this is what I saw) before disturbing the scene. There were no other body parts nearby and the feathers were of the featureless down variety.  A bit of flesh clung to the remains but the most obvious feature was a metal band that encircled the shorter bone. Fortunately the bones were within easy reach, so I retrieved them from their resting spot among the cat-tails.

  I suspected the leg to be from a Canada Goose – call it a hunch (aided by the fact that the air was full of thousands of honking geese at the time).  In a typical year, over a million birds are banded for migration research and some 350,000 of those are ducks and geese – the rest being songbirds, raptors and the like. Given the large size of these remains and the wetland location, it was no great revelation of science to declare this dearly departed limb to be from a goose. 

  The band would normally be of great assistance in identifying the victim in this case. Federally licensed bird banders are issued specific bands from the facility in Maryland. They come in 23 standard sizes to fit everything from the insect-like appendages of a hummingbird to the massive meat hooks of a Golden Eagle. Each band is stamped with a unique eight or nine digit number along with the words “Avise Bird Band, Wash, D.C.” and “Write bird band, Laurel, MD, 20708, USA”. After a researcher crimps the band around the lower leg of his captured bird, he records the number and date, along with weight and species information, and releases the animal with its new jewelry in tow.  All of this information is sent to the Maryland banding lab. If the bird is later recovered, this I.D. number will link it to a specific place and time and allow researchers to learn a bit about migration routes and life spans.

  The band on my boardwalk find appeared to be a typical butt end aluminum job about 5/8 inch wide.  I wiped it off in order to see the numbers, but was confused by seeing the word “REWARD” in place of the “Write bird band…”  There was a six digit number beneath which almost looked like a phone number, but was one digit short on the exchange side.  A little more wiping cleared off the figure of “$100” as the reward amount.  This bird had a price on his head.

  The Maryland number wasn’t there, but I decided to contact the bird lab anyway to see if this thing was for real.  Sure, I wanted to report the information for the sake of science and all, but there was that bit about a cash reward that needed some resolution as well.  I have never heard of a Reward Band before and fully expected some laughter to come through the other end of the phone line.

  Before calling, I wanted to make absolutely sure that the victim was a Canada Goose.  I needed to sound very official when reporting my find.  Saying “I got me a dead burd and you owes me a hunnart bucks,” would come off as suspicious and blackmail-like. No, I’d verify the facts and report them clinically before mentioning the subject of blood money.  Then, after the laughter died down I would be able to take the practical joke news with scholarly dignity.

  My “Avian Osteology” text confirmed that I was in possession of the right tarsometatarsus of Branta canadensis – the Canada Goose. (I left the upper leg bone, the femur, at the marsh). My specimen measured 85 mm and fell neatly into the listed length range of 82 to 94 mm. for the species. Take a look here at a picture of the bone and you’ll see that it ends in three projections that would have articulated with three foreword facing toes.  This is the portion that forms the lower leg of the bird in life. In this case I had the banded right leg of a goose in advanced death.

  I placed my call to the bird lab and no one said “gotcha.”  My voice landed on the desk of Kim Magruder after three transfers.  She answered my questions about Reward bands and informed me that they were a regular “tool” employed by game agencies to prompt band reporting. She took down my location information and address.  “The lab will send you a certificate later on that will tell you about the bird and where it was first banded,” she said. I repeated my address, just in case she didn’t get it right, and thanked her.  Before hanging up, she then assured me that I would be getting a check in the mail. “Oh that?” I said, “well I guess that would be o.k. also, but I just wanted to make sure this thing got reported.”  I then repeated my name and address one more time – for the certificate, you know.

  I got a check for $100 in the mail exactly one week later (here it is, if you don’t believe me), but haven’t received my certificate yet. I’ll have to tell you the factual scoop on this bird some other time. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about tearing the check up. I mean, with the government in such financial straights and all it just wouldn’t be right?  Right?

November 18, 2007

Micmac Qalipu and Sami der

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:50 pm

  I was very surprised to find a small herd of reindeer in downtown Blissfield last weekend. Frankly, the sight blind-sided me because it was in downtown Blissfield and it was last weekend.  On the day of my visit the small southeast Michigan town was kicking off a Sunday afternoon Christmas shopping day of sorts.  While Nat King Cole crooned about roasting chestnuts from street-side loudspeakers, small herds of people were pausing to view some captive reindeer held within a red fence enclosure.  The weather was quite warm, the grass was quite green and the leaves hadn’t all left yet. So, you can imagine my reaction to this double shock.  A Christmas event on the 10th of November supported by real reindeer? Given the situation, fake reindeer and a few high school kids dressed in elf suits would have been more appropriate.

  Strangely enough I got all giddy, in a Christmas sort of way, upon seeing these genuine beasts in a genuinely odd situation. I’ve never seen one of these things close up before. I crowded in among the children and stuck my nose through the fencing to get a good close look.  The only camera I had with me was on my cell phone so I took a few grainy shots in order to record the situation.

  The enclosure was divided into two parts with two animals and a human caretaker in each.  Grabbing the reins of the largest animal, a buck sporting a hefty rack, Dave Aldrich patiently answered innocent questions from the gathered admirers. A Toledo schoolteacher asked him where he had come from.  Dave answered in true straight man style by saying “the North Pole,” but he immediately started to chuckle and admitted “I just can’t keep a straight face when I say that anymore, we’re actually from Clare, MI.”  He flipped out a business card at her request.  He runs the Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm in that northern Lower Peninsula community. Clare is appropriately known as the “gateway to the north” and is a situated three and a half hours from Blissfield.  This is the start of the busy season for him and the current event was definitely the earliest one on his Christmas schedule.

  The reindeer at his side was a full grown male weighing in at about 350 pounds (see poor quality phone cam shot here). It was named Dasher (yeah, o.k., well, whatever) and sported a dense light brown coat which graded into white sides and a hefty white mane. Dasher, er, the male specimen, stood about 40 inches at the shoulder and possessed the stature of a Great Dane.  The females in the other section were just over three feet high at the shoulder and were probably a hundred pounds lighter (see another crummy shot here).  One advantage of seeing these creatures first hand is to get an appreciation of just how small they really are. No doubt this is an adaptation to pulling sleighs over narrow rooftops.

  Reindeer are actually Caribou under the influence of domestication. Selective breeding has reduced their body size, given them varied coat colors, and flattened their faces.  Our North American Caribou are exactly the same species, but much heftier in size.  Caribou are arctic wanderers that range over the entire northern half of the globe, but in northern Europe they are called reindeer.

  In the Scandinavian countries, these animals have been domesticated for 7,000 years. It is from the Old Norse tongue that we get the original name of this beast which was simply called a “hreinn.” A Middle English “der”, meaning animal, was added later.  The resulting “hreinn-der” quickly became “reindeer.” This hackneyed name also made sense, however, in that they are members of the deer family that can be fitted with reins.  As reined domestics, they serve as beasts of burden, milking stock and meat (2,000 tons of reindeer meat processed every year according to a Sami tribal website).

  The Micmac Indians of Canada call the North American version of this animal the “Qalipu.”  We derived the caribou name from hacking up this label.  In that tongue, the name means “snow shoveler.” Caribou, reindeer, dashers -whatever you call them -are all equipped with widely splayed hooves perfectly suited for clearing away snow in search of crucial winter food. They survive the bitter cold darkness by feasting on the tiny lichens which coat the frozen tundra soil. Looking at these compact deer in front of me I was drawn to their snow plowing implements. Not only are their feet huge in proportion to their body, but they stand flat-footed with their dew claws in contact with the ground.  Take one more look here and gaze through the pixilated haze to get some sense of a pair of reindeer feet.

  Unique among members of the deer family, all sexes and ages grow antlers.  A pinto colored calf was enclosed with the male and already sported a set of long thin antlers – still covered in velvet.  The mature buck had an impressive asymmetric rack that branched out in many directions.  A huge palmate extension, known as a brow tine, jutted forward over the eyes.  The antlers exhibited by the two females were lanky simplified versions of the buck’s pair. Dave fielded many antler questions with practiced confidence.  Yes they drop off and re-grow each year.  No, the bucks don’t usually fight with them – the one with the biggest rack gets all the girls, period.  Yes, the females can use their antlers to run a wolf through when they try to get at her calf. “It’s not a pretty thing to see,” he concludes.

  They had several bundles of shed antlers stacked up against the side of the building next to the enclosure.  I bought a pair from Dave and pointed to the smallest set there.  He commented that most folks want the big buck antlers but accepted my desire to have a pair of the delicate female ornaments.  The pregnant does retain their antlers until the following spring and drop them within a week of giving birth in March.  These fine little wolf-killing antlers enable the female to chase away potential predators during those critical early hours when her calf is wobbly and unable to run.

  Dave didn’t mention that most of the male reindeer drop their antlers immediately after the rut in November. By the time Christmas comes around, the guys are normally antlerless.  This can only mean one thing – all of the reindeer leading Santa’s sleigh must be pregnant females!

November 16, 2007

Little Awn on the Prairie

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:07 pm

 This being the second or third time that I’ve addressed the topic of native grasses, I beg your indulgence.  You might be one of those who happen to believe that people who bring up the subject of “native grass” more than once in a decade are desperately in need of a life.  I will admit that yelling out something like “Hey everybody, let’s talk about grass,” will either put an immediate end to a party or create a flurry of unintended interest.  No, I am not talking about “grass” dude, I’m talking about grasses – those skinny leaved plants that bind our world together.

  Before I continue, let me remind you that without grass, human life on the planet would be very different indeed.  Those early hominoids in Africa probably would never have thought about standing upright if it weren’t for the need to forage over expansive grasslands.  Corn, wheat, and rice are not only the three biggest food plants of all time but they are grasses.  You and I are slaves to grass – we grow it, mow it, and watch games played on it, and mow it again.  Our food animals are slaves to it – they eat it and we eat them (O.K., not everyone eats “them” but vegetarians eat “it” before “it” becomes “them.”) At the very least, we should be talking about grass much more than we do.

  In the interest of setting all things into perspective and restoring world harmony, I would like to call your attention to some unappreciated native grasses called Indian Grass & Little Bluestem. They are not food plants but do provide a feast for the eyes. They whisper with each passing breeze something about a glorious past. The beautiful fall hues and stories presented by these two plants are easily overlooked. 

  There is a particular stretch of Telegraph Road that runs from Monroe south to the Ohio state line that harbors a nice linear patch of these grasses. Most of the stretch exists as an unmown right of way for the rail line that parallels the road (see here). The tall light tan stems are those of the Yellow Indian Grass and the clusters of rich golden oak hued grass are called Little Bluestem.

  Up close, the stately Indian Grass presents a seed head (a panicle) made up of dozens of hairy little glume covered seeds.  (Take a look at this detail shot – it’s the plant on the far right). The bent bristles sticking out from each seed case are called awns. There is one of these whisker-like appendages attached to each seed. When the seed falls to earth, humidity changes cause the awns to straighten out and wave from side to side.  These motions act to burrow the seed into the ground.  The plant plants itself, you could say. 

  I have one of the Indian Grass panicles next to me at my desk. It is sticking out of a Storm Trooper cup, just in case you want to know.  Every now and then I’ll reach over and pluck a seed and lightly apply the crooked awn to my tongue in order to wet it slightly. When I set it down on the table, the tiny thing comes to life and begins wiggle and a rotate.  The action, while not fast, is amazingly quick for a plant.  This is the kind of excitement that grasses can lead to.

  The Little Blue Stem, on the other stem, doesn’t have the crooked awn system but instead presents its seeds at the end of a crooked little stalklet (see detail here).  The seeds have nice little Elizabethan collars about them.  These seeds do nothing when you lick them, but so what.

  Both of these plants can be considered upland Prairie plants.  As such they only grow in slightly acidic sandy soil.  My overall point here is that these plants stand as a vestige of what much of southern Michigan looked like before the days of agriculture. The southern three tiers of Michigan counties were originally covered with mixed prairies and oak groves in the old days.  It is believed that 150 square miles of grasslands once covered this region.  In fact, there is even pretty good evidence that the quintessential prairie roamer himself, the bison, could be found in these Michigan grasslands as late as the 1700’s.

  The native grasslands were the first areas plowed up by our agricultural ancestors, so they have essentially been replaced by alternate grasses like timothy, wheat, and corn.  The piece of grassland adjacent to Telegraph appears to be a remnant from the early days – a strip prairie preserved in the right of way corridor granted by a very old road and a very old railway route. Both the bluestem and Indian grass are hardy survivors. Though mowers, plows and herbicides have kept them in check, they cling to the landscape and speak volumes about our past. If you stop to listen, they are saying “Go ahead, lick an awn – I dare you.”

November 14, 2007

One Day at the Mudflat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:09 pm

 The water has not returned to this portion of the coastal marsh since it blew out in early October. Exposed mudflats, edged by a cat-tail border, mark the previous location of the liquid element.  The pasty black basement of the marsh is pockmarked with small pools and ribbons of water in the low spots. Millions of stranded duckweeds pepper the surface with flecks of green. Like the alligator swim holes in the droughty Florida everglades, only the muskrat canals retain any significant water. These channels mark the habitual travel routes of the ‘rats as they traverse the marsh on their daily rounds. They are not deliberately excavated but are created through constant use – worn trails marking the outlines of a wet pasture. Most canal systems originate from the cat-tail edge and fan out dendritically into the open water portions, but are invisible when coated over with a liquid veneer.  The exposed canals are outlined clearly against the muck background and stand as evidence that the ‘rats claim nearly every portion of the marsh.

  Such a mudflat scene normally lasts only a day or two and is typically the result of a temporary phenomenon known as a sieche. When prolonged stiff westerly winds push the near shore contents of Lake Erie towards Buffalo, New York, the resulting wind tide drains the precious shallow water from the shoreline marshes on the Michigan end. Life waits in suspended animation until the winds play themselves out and the waters inevitably return. The lake level here always drops during the fall and sieches are frequent events, but this year the levels have been extremely low.  It seems that the winds have carried the water away for good and will not return it before the freeze-up. 

  This morning, four Common Snipes took advantage of the situation and were busily probing the wetter portions for aquatic insects. These brown and cream streaked birds are secretive by nature and rarely venture out into the open like their gregarious cousins the sandpipers, dowitchers, and yellowlegs.   Today, the prospect of easy hunting overcame their reclusive tendencies. The birds pushed their long bills into the mucky water to pluck out insects and mechanically probed in and out as they walked.  One bird, standing off from the others, added a rhythmic bob to his gait as if portraying Popeye in one of those shaky early cartoons. He was timed to a beat that the others did not perceive (in the world of the snipe he may be the “special one” – who knows).

  There is one small corner of the marsh, ¼ mile distant from the lake, which retains a large murky pool of water. The Snipe avoided it because the water is too deep for their short little legs, but four mallard ducks have found it much to their liking. It contains just enough water to provide three green-headed drakes and a single brown hen with a secure swimming space. Since the advent of duck season, this corner also provides an additional benefit as a refuge tucked away from the hunted portions of the lakeshore.  Perhaps most importantly, these muddy shallows are a fertile ground for dabbling.

  Mallards are classified as dabbling ducks which means they feed on plants and invertebrates found within neck-reach in shallow water.   When swimming, they typically tip their rump into the air and dip their heads below the surface to muddle through the debris with their beaks.  When presented with mud flat shallows they resort to walking with their necks extended down and forward while noisily dabbling the mud as they go. They systematically sweep the area before them as if metal detecting.  The constant pitter patter of shutting beaks generates the sound of a gentle rain.

   The top and bottom bills of the mallard are edged with tooth-like structures called lamellae.  These act as sieve plates when the beak is partially closed.  The birds scoop up mouthfuls of mucky water and force the water out through the lamellae with a push of the tongue – in the manner that whales use their baleen plates. Bits of plants, tiny snails and other edible fare are separated out and duly ingested.

  As the herds of dabbling mallards worked the far edge, a pair of muskrats busily foraged at the deeper end.  This pair of ‘rats wisely chose to construct their winter lodge along the deeper part of the marsh.  Working primarily at night, the two have piled up a mass of bottom debris and cat-tail stalks towering three feet over the water level. The afternoon found them attending to some light lodge duties as well. The primary entrance to the structure is an underwater tunnel accessible from the deeper east side.  The back side of the lodge sits at the edge of the pool where it approaches zero depth. They have built another house across the pool close to where the mallards were now operating, but haven’t spent much time there today.

  In between diving trips to gather up tender cat-tail rhizomes followed by periods of contented feeding, at least one ‘rat appeared distracted by the activity of the ducks.  On occasion this one would float stiffly at the surface and scan the birds with an unblinking stare, before resuming his feeding.  While the other ‘rat was satisfied where he was and with what he was doing, the staring ‘rat couldn’t let the thing be.  To say that he looked irritated, while anthropomorphic, certainly fits his demeanor.

  Eventually he ventured out closer to the ducks while in the process of gathering in a mouthful of bottom detritus and water plants.  He lingered a moment in their vicinity, but turned and took the bundle back to the lodge and dove under.  A few moments later he came out and nervously cut away a dead cat-tail leaf while continuing to eye up the feathered intruders.  This leaf he also took into the lodge for necessary interior adjustments.

  The next time out, he worked his way immediately over to the dabblers but clung to the shallows on the lodge side of the pool. Although appearing to gather material, he didn’t actually pick anything up.  Alligator-like he slid over towards a drake that was preening atop a mound of mud.  Suddenly the determined ‘rat exploded out of the water and leapt directly at the bird. His attack propelled him into an airborne arc and he landed exactly at the spot that the surprised Mallard quickly vacated.

  The muskrat bounded off the hummock and continued his pursuit of the drake by hurtling back into the water.  The duck swam rapidly ahead of his pursuer but even his swimming ability was taxed as the angry ‘rat pulsed forward with powerful tail thrusts that lifted his forequarters out of the water. They two zigged and zagged about for a while as the other ducks scattered. The gator-rat stuck to the path of his chosen victim and ignored those about him.

 For a moment the natural order of things was rendered katty-whampus. Should the muskrat capture his chosen prey what would he do with it? Would bland plant material ever satisfy his calm vegetarian needs again? But as quickly as the situation presented itself, it ended. The muskrat broke off the pursuit and the flustered drake slowly regained his composure.  The ‘rat had made his point and confidently swam into the seclusion of a dense cat-tail stand to revel in his victorious statement of territoriality.

  The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows over the battlefield by this time and heralded the return of the natural order. The piddling ducks resumed their activities and the other muskrat calmly remained in his part of the mudflat pool.

November 12, 2007

Hello Mr. Brown

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 pm

  Today was a typical brown November day in most respects.  Bouts of spittle rain issued from a featureless steel gray sky and westerly gusts were given voice as they hissed through the stands of pale sienna Switch grass. Miniature clouds of puffy seeds peeled off of the cinnamon shaded cat-tail heads and engaged in short randomly directed flights. The carpet of new fallen leaves presented a patchwork of mocha and nutmeg. Although the scene was representative of the month, the winds were of a mild green September nature.  The temperature hovered in the mid-fifties by mid day. A lone tree cricket found enough confidence in the relative balminess to commence trilling. The moss colored songster fell silent as a gang of Ruby-crowned Kinglets patrolled through the thicket seeking insect food such as he. The tiny birds were olive green and chose to hide their ruby red crowns from me as I watched them.

  I came upon what looked to be a worm making its way across the sidewalk- a brown worm, of course.  Given the rain and mild weather this was not a surprising thing. My reaction turned to delighted surprise when, upon closer inspection, the apparent worm revealed itself to be a tiny Brown Snake. The minuscule reptile recoiled as I approached but posed patiently for a portrait (see here).

  Brown Snakes, also known as DeKay’s Snakes, are very common in our region but rarely seen because of their small size and secretive nature.  This particular individual, though only 8 inches in length, was a young snake but not a baby.  The newborn snakelets are only about three inches long and are born “live” in late summer/early fall (direct from mom rather than incubating in an egg).  Fully mature adults rarely get over a foot in length even when training for the Olympics.  It’s hard to get a sense of their small stature unless you get one in hand -at which point the size resemblance to a worm becomes obvious (look here). True to their common name, they are mostly brown.  This sidewalk snake had a pleasant chestnut hue to it, but most are a coffee-with-a-lot-of-cream color. All display a distinctive pale back stripe, with a border of dark umber spots, and a wonderful pink belly (see here).

  Brown Snakes spend most of their summertime under the leaf litter and only make their presence known during the sepia toned days of autumn.  At this time of year they actively seek out hibernation sites and the search exposes them to a great risk of life and, er… limb (I suppose I should say “hiss and scale” since they have no limbs to risk). October and November are the best months to see this species, but actually “seeing” them is near impossible since they blend into most of their chosen backgrounds.  I need to emphasize the word “most” here. I easily spotted this diminutive serpent when it was highlighted against the open concrete.  My intentions were purely observational but there are a whole host of natural predators out there that would view such an opportunity differently.  Hawks, foxes, herons, and raccoons all eat these cylindrical brown reptiles. Humans pose a great danger to them as well. Like a real life version of “Frogger,” many are flattened when attempting to cross roadways.     

  Only when secure in their hibernation burrows, deep below the frost line, can they recover from the effects of running (I mean –crawling) this gauntlet. Upon emergence in the spring, they have to go through this harrowing experience again. 

  In its leafy low down micro element, however, the Brown is an efficient predator in its own right.  They eat worms and slugs for the most part, but specialize in snails.  There are very few snakes on the planet that have developed the ability to extract snails from their shells, and this is one of them.  Upon grabbing the fleshy part of the mollusk, the snake begins to roll and twist until the escargot is wrenched right out of its home. A combination of a short stout head, a firm set of tiny teeth and a very flexible spine combine to form an efficient extraction killer.

  I have never seen them perform this feat, but found a number of references referring to it.  One of the sources states that “snail extraction in Storeria dekayi involves cervical twisting of 180-270 degrees, which involves some lateral and vertical bending, but also suggests the contribution of verbal torsion.”  This article had the imposing title of “Behavioral and Morphological Adaptations for Snail Extraction in North American Brown Snakes.” The title alone is longer than the snake which it discusses!  Let’s just leave it at that.

  I released my little brown snake into a patch of ochre leaves and it soon vanished from sight as I wished it another happy 6 inches of life.

November 10, 2007

The Bald-faced Truth

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:32 pm

   Like pulling a curtain away at a new sculpture dedication, the winds of fall strip the leaves from the trees to reveal their naked form.  This burlesque act also exposes stark evidence that animal tenants have led secret summer lives under the cover of this leafy canopy.  Now empty, the pendulant structures of the Baltimore Oriole and the messy mud remnants of Robin nests stand as proof that these birds once performed their parental duties there. The papery cocoons of the Cecropia Moth and the ball’o leaf structures of the Fox Squirrel promise that life will continue to make use of the supportive branches through the winter.  To most folks, however, the most dramatic revelation brought about by this seasonal event is the exposure of the large gray nests of the Bald-faced Hornet.

   Hornet nests are impossible to ignore (see here).  These basketball sized constructions are built on the peripheral branches of the tree so they are very much out there and “in your face.”  Often these things pop up right in your front yard – overhead and in the very tree that you walked by thousands of times while in daily pursuit of your economic development.  The fact that a thriving wasp colony was pursuing its development in such close vicinity to your flesh can be unsettling, but once the colony is revealed Elvis has already left the building. Should you take the time to cut the thing down, you can treat yourself to a fascinating – and very safe – sight.

  The adult Bald-face is a formidable member of the Yellow jacket genus, but unlike its cousins is primarily black with a prominent white face (see here). Workers will defend their home with great gusto, but are not nearly as aggressive as the black & yellow jackets and generally go about their lives minding their own business. Needless to say, handling an active summer nest is not a good idea.  On the other hand, handling a late season nest after a few killing frosts can be a great idea. The frost kills off every worker (up to 400 per colony) and the place is deserted. Only the queen survives the late season die off. Her royal highness leaves the castle to spend the winter hibernating in a nearby woodpile or under some bark.  She will emerge next spring and begin the process of building another structure. The old house will never be used again.

  The nest consists of an outer shell of homemade paper encapsulating a chamber containing suspended combs.  Take a look here at a cut-away view. Access to the breeding chamber is via an entrance hole located at the bottom and everything is oriented upside down.  The cells are six-sided and the developing grubs cling to their interiors like tiny bats.  Workers feed them a mash consisting of chewed-up caterpillars and spit (sounds good doesn’t it).  New combs are added to accommodate the growing family by hanging it from the previous one with a stout central stalk.  By the time the season ends, many larvae are left to die and their shriveled remains can be seen within.  With each new nursery comb addition, a new outer paper shell is added as an inner layer is dismantled.

  All hornets are skilled paper makers and these black & white wasps are masters of their craft. Everything in the structure is made of paper – true paper.  Wasps beat humans to the punch in this category by well over 100 million years.  Although Egyptians pummeled papyrus into sheets thousands of years ago their product was not true paper.  By definition, true paper requires a chemical interaction between fibers.  The Chinese came up with the process around 100 AD using re-constituted pulp.  For hundreds of years, most early paper was made from cloth materials and had a high rag content. A Frenchman, Rene de Reaumur, observed paper wasps doing their thing and his work led to the development of paper made from wood pulp. 

  Today the average American uses 700 pounds of wood pulp paper and paper products per year (say that three times fast).  All of this paper is commercially made using the same chewed wood and spit (it’s all about the spit) process invented by wasps.  Worker hornets gather wood fibers by chewing away layers from the nearest fence post, dead tree, or porch railing.  The wood fibers are reduced to strands of cellulose and mixed with proteins in the saliva which chemically interact to form a starchy matrix. Each mouthful of pulp is carefully laid down as a crescent shaped addition to the paper shell. Take a look here and you can see the individual mouthfuls clearly indicated by the different colors – the color depending upon the color of the original source wood.

  The paper shell made by the Bald-faced Hornet is layered with air spaces between to act as insulation and climate control for the colony.  Each sheet is only .1 mm in thickness, yet is stiff and resilient enough to withstand the effects of weather long after the colony is gone.  Most of these nests survive winter’s assault and last until the new leaves of spring emerge the following year.  Modern human papermakers would be hard put to make such a durable product today.

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