Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 29, 2007

Hanging Hedghog Bladders

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:59 pm

In the dry winter world of plants, the Spiny Cucumber fruit is a stand out. During the summer, this climbing vine blends in with the greenery and pretty much goes undetected. When the cold season strips all the foliage from the landscape the prickly globes of this plant steadfastly remain in suspended view.

As you might expect, the Spiny Cucumber- a.k.a. wild or mock cucumber – is a vine producing member of the cucumber family, but unlike their edible cousins are not people palatable. The late summer plant bears star-like leaves and fruit which resemble unshaved runt cucumbers. Their impressive array of stout spines gives them a distinctly unfriendly look, however. Each oval fruit eventually produces four large seeds that fall earthward when the husk dries out.

The dried ďhusksĒ that hang from the winter vine consist of a papery outer coating (the spine bearing part) encasing an intricate mesh pouch. This inner pouch is divided into two chambers. Once the fleshy parts are gone, only the tough open weave of supporting veins remain. Luffas, those odd looking face cleaning sponges sold in health and beauty departments, are larger denser versions of this dried out wild cucumber fruit (in other words, a similar structure on a related plant).

The scientific name of this plant is Echinocystis lobata. In Greek, the technical name means Lobed Hedgehog Bladder, which pretty much says it all, doesnít it. One of the reasons that scientific names are so important is that they cut across all language barriers. For instance, our hedgehog plants are currently rampaging over the Polish & Serbian landscape as an invasive species. Their name has therefore been plastered throughout the European botanical literature, but they are rarely referred to as spiny cucumbers. The scientific name is used instead. So, when you read ďZhrnuli sa poznatky o historickom a†sķ?asnom rozöŪrenŪ invŠzneho druhu Echinocystis lobata na ķzemŪ Slovenska,Ē in one of the Polish technical journals you can clearly pick out the name of this plant. You may not know what they are saying about it, but at least you know they are referring to it.

For all I know this particular article might be recommending the use of this plant as a face cleaning sponge. I would think the first order of business for any Polish entrepreneur looking to sell this product would be to immediately change the name from Hedgehog Bladder to something gentler like ďCucumber of LoveĒ.

I do know that one of the English language botany journals did have an article referring to the thigmotropic character of spiny cucumbers. When growing, the vine tendrils respond to touch and wrap around whatever surface they are in contact with. This slow motion climbing action is called a thigmotropic response. The tightly coiled tendrils, resulting from this response, remain long after the plant they were wrapping around has died.

At this point I realize that I have cluttered you with some relatively useless information about a relatively simple subject.That is my job and I take it seriously. As an antidote, I would like to leave you with a blessing. May the ďCucumber of simplicityĒ descend upon you and clear your mind for the season ahead.

December 27, 2007

Interview with a Dead ‘Possum

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

†Finding an opossum dead in the middle of the road is not an unusual thing. Such a sight is an expected part of roadside dťcor, though less frequent during the winter. ĎPossums den up during severe winter spells but they eventually emerge to forage for food as soon as the weather breaks.It is as if they are called by destiny to carry on their legendary one sided battles with our automobiles.In possum society it is apparently not enough to just play dead.

I found one of these vanquished road warriors the other day while Christmas shopping. For me, of course, this was a gift from heaven Ė or at least Purgatory.The freshly killed specimen was perfect in every aspect and begged to be picked up. Keep in mind that roadkills donít beckon everyone equally, but I felt compelled to pass this gift on to you.

I am well aware that presenting a dead possum as a wrapped present may be construed by the receiver as a weaker version of the old horseís head in your bed ďoffer you canít refuseĒ kind of thing.You can refuse my offer to take a closer look at this critter, but I implore you to indulge me.Itís not every day that you get a chance to interview North Americaís only marsupial.

By interview, of course, I mean a forensic examination to draw out some telling details.Perhaps the two most talkative details on any opossum are found by looking at the tail and ears. This individual bore the distinctive marks of an animal ill-suited to northern climes. Most Michigan possums have frost-bitten ears and/or tails.The delicate exposed tissues on these features are subject to freezing. This unfortunate critter had a severely frost damaged tail where the end tail vertebrae bone was actually exposed and the tender terminal flesh was discolored.Since the wound was healed over, it was not a result of the accident that sent it to the great garbage can in heaven.

Opossums are southern creatures that have expanded their range northward over recent time. They do not appear locally in the prehistoric archaeological record. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit in 1701, made first mention of the creature as a resident of S.E. Michigan during his brief tenure here, although the first actual Monroe county record was made in 1850. By the early 1900ís, possums were popping up throughout Lower Michigan. They even ventured into the Ďda U.P. by the 1950ís, eh! The problem is that they have yet to cover their tails and ears with fur and often pay the price.

Oddly enough, this particular roadkill had perfect ears showing no signs of frostbite what-so-ever. These rodent-like appendages prompted the aforementioned Mr. Cadillac to write about ďlarge wood rats which are as large as rabbits; most of them are grey but there are some seen which are as white as snow.ĒHis further explanation that the female rat has ďa pouch under her belly which opens and shuts as she requiresÖĒ makes it clear he was definitely talking Ďpossum. ††

As a marsupial, opossum females are equipped with ďpouchesĒ with which to carry their ďjoeys.Ē Take a look here and you can clearly see the pouch on this female specimen, but youíll notice that it is not a pouch in the true sense of the word. This pouch opens more like one of those plastic change purses where the opening is in the center. Our female was several months away from mating season, so her pouch folds were not swollen. During the breeding season there would also be 13 nipples in evidence on the pink hairless belly skin, but these are barely visible during the winter.

††Iím glad youíve stuck with me so far, because there are a few more things Iíd like to point out. Take a look here, for instance, and examine the bright pink nose.Early naturalists used to think that opossum females would mate through their nostrils and then sneeze their young into the pouch. This belief started when those same naturalists looked at the forked nature of theÖwell, shall we say, the ďmale organĒ and literally put two and two together.They were wrong, by the way. Opossums do ďitĒ like every other mammal on earth, so you can look at this nose picture without guilt or shame.

Last and certainly not least, the hind feet of the opossum are simply incredible.They have thumbs on their back feet that give them the appearance of monkey paws (see here and here).These clawless foot thumbs point inward and assist them in climbing. Close examination reveals that they are startlingly like our human hands. Draw your eyes closer to inspect the foot pad and youíll see they possess one more human-like trait Ė they have unique fingerprint ridges on their thumbs and palms.

So, itís O.K. to look a gift Ďpossum in the mouth and everywhere else because dead Ďpossums do tell tales.

December 25, 2007

Hark! The Herald Spider Clings

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:42 pm

I recently encountered an unseasonal sight in the form of a dangling spider.The tiny beast was swaying gently in the wind while suspended from an invisible silken thread.It appeared to be a lifeless body without control of its earthly form Ė hung by Dame Winter as a testament to her mastery of fragile life forms.After all, the temperatures have held below the freezing mark this month and only the hardy survive. In sympathy, I swept my hand through the space above it in order to sever the thread that held it up for display and allow it to tumble to earth.†

To my surprise, the form that fell onto the snow below was not a lifeless one. The spider was alive. It slowly uncurled and began to walk across the snow drift. This being Christmas week, I declared ďHarkĒ and bent down to examine it. The slender arachnid was a Long-jawed Orb Weaver. These narrow spiders are common summer residents who spin their radiating webs in wetland habitats.†

Long-jaws overwinter as inactive juveniles that stay tucked away under the cover of bark.Winter birds eat these things, so the juveniles must stay well hidden if they want to see adulthood.It is very likely that this spider survived a feathered assault by bungee jumping to silken safety. Had I not helpfully cut its line (sorry), it would have quickly returned to its hiding location via its safety rope.†

As it was, the disgusted little orb-weaver was forced to walk across an icy layer of snow in order to regain its home tree. This freezing feat of feets is nothing short of a miracle (although Iím pretty sure the spider did not view the situation in this light). Spiders are hydraulic beasts that operate on internal fluids. Those fluids are mostly composed of water which means they should freeze solid in these conditions.The reason they donít is due to the animalís ability to reduce its so-called supercooling points through a process known as thermal hysteresis. This is not to be confused with thermal hysteria, which is the human trait of getting all hot and bothered. At the risk of oversimplifying things, letís just say that hysteresis involves pumping the body full of additives such as glycerol that alter the freezing level of body liquids.

It takes a few weeks for a spider to get to this level, but once imbued with anti-freeze protection they can laugh off the worst of winterís remaining rage. My spider was not laughing by the time he reached the base of the tree.

There is another reason why I chose to profile a lowly Prestone spider on this Christmas Day.Spiders do play a role in traditional Christmas legend. They are credited with the invention of tinsel, for instance. According to an old German tale the silken webbing laid upon a tree by a bunch of curious spiders was turned into silver garlands by the touch of the Christ child (or Santa Claus Ė the details are fuzzy). According to another legend, a spider was credited with saving the Savior himself. When the Holy family fled to Egypt during the reign of King Herod they sought the shelter of a cave in order to elude the kingís soldiers. As the family slept within, a spider wove her web over the entrance as an act of kindness. When the soldiers approached the cave they elected not to search it because the web indicated that no one had entered it recently.They moved on and the Christ child survived.††

† Apparently this ancient spider was carrying on a family tradition.The same act had been performed while protecting the great Japanese warrior Yoritomo, the prophet Mohammed, and David Ė the future king of Israel. Spiders, such as my long-jawed friend, are apparently content with small acts of kindness. Their Christmas message to us is one of ďPeace on earth and good will toward men.Ē

December 23, 2007

A Bittersweet Concern

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:18 pm

Contrasted against the backdrop of leafless gray shrubbery and framed by an equally gray winter sky, the brilliant oranges and reds of the bittersweet are almost electric in intensity. Their artistic spacing and informally draped arrangement demands attention. Close scrutiny only enhances the experience. The individual fruits of this woody vine are fine examples of natural design Ė three parted scarlet berries surrounded by yellow-orange stars. The fleshy red portion is called an ďarilĒ and each chamber holds one or two brown seeds. Itís the packaging and not the contents that matter in this case, however. Thereís nothing better to fill the photographerís frame or the flower arrangerís vase. This is a good thing

To an overwintering bird, this fruit laden vine is a welcome sight.The arils are eagerly consumed by the likes of chickadees and blue jays and the remaining seeds are subsequently pooped out.This is how Bittersweets get around.Unfortunately, this is a bad thing because of the particular bittersweet in question. This is an example of a bad bittersweet.

There is a good bittersweet Ė a native plant called the American Bittersweet.The bad one pictured here is called the Asiatic Bittersweet and it, as you might have concluded, hails from way out east. It is native to Japan, Korea, and China north of the Yangzi River. Telling the difference between the two can be difficult to near impossible.The Yankee version has elongate oval leaves and produces berries in a cluster at the end of the vine twigs.Alien bittersweets have rounded leaves and berries in small clusters along the entire stem. Since the vines are sans leaf this time of year, the only things to go by are the naked fruit facts. The alien plant is supposed to have a yellow outer covering and the native plant an orange covering, but one personís yellow is somebody elses orange (are school buses plain yellow or orangish yellow). The Asiatic plants are believed to hybridize with the native ones anyway, which blurs trait differences and fudges identity. This too is a bad thing.

The best thing to do is to rip the plant out by its roots and clip off the attractive berry producing sections for your dried flower arrangement.After all, the Asiatic plant was brought to this country in the 1860ís Ė 1870ís as an ornamental. Please make sure you are ripping up the correct plant before doing so.The American Bittersweet is relatively rare nowadays and destroying the native plant would be a bad thing.†Asiatic bittersweets are listed as noxious invasive weeds because they are diluting the native bittersweet and they tend to grow in dense smothering clusters. They will not take over the world but should be herded back into captivity.††

Now that I have burdened you with these bittersweet concerns, I might as well tell you a few more bad things about all bittersweets.First of all, they really arenít supposed to be called bittersweets at all. They are officially known as staff vines. The bittersweet title rightly belongs to a wild member of the tomato family commonly called bittersweet nightshades.Our brightly fruited vines were supposedly given the copycat title because their berries looked like those of the nightshade, but they really donít.Confused? Well, it appears that a lot of folks are confused by this plant. This person, for instance, was confused when she named her ceramic creation ďbittersweetĒ (see here).

There is one thing that needs to be made perfectly clear.The Bittersweet fruit is deadly poisonous for humans.This is a good thing to know.By dictionary definition, something bittersweet has elements of both happiness and sadness. Maybe the false name is appropriate after all.

December 21, 2007

Crusty Bunny Toes

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:13 am

ďThe fact that rabbits gots toes ainít a foreign concept to no one.Why, them lucky rabbit feet dangling from my rearview are simultaneous proof that that theys got toes and that bunnies ainít especially lucky.Ē

-Anonymous Philosopher

I donít really need to add anything to this learned statement ďregardín the likes of bunny toes,Ē but I feel compelled to enhance it.As ďpart twoĒ of my informal series of snow track discussions, Iíd like to show you some especially good rabbit tracks.These crisp prints were laid down on the hard surface of a windblown drift and they provide some insight into the nature of attached rabbit feet.

As in the case of many winter mammal tracks, the hind foot impressions precede the front foot marks on a typical rabbit track set. A running rabbit does a leap frog maneuver in which the feet cross over and the hind foot ends up striking the ground ahead of the tiny front feet. Take a look at this print set and youíll see what I mean.The hind foot on a Cottontail Rabbit is about 3 Ĺ inches long and when the heel mark registers the larger nature of the back foot is obvious. The front foot is only about 1 inch long.In this case, the bounding bunny is headed to the right of the photo and the two front foot tracks are trailing behind.

Since rabbits have fully furred heel pads and they generally keep their toes together, their prints usually appear as indistinct oblong smears in the soft snow. In actuality, cottontails have four toes on their hind foot and five on their front, but this rarely shows in the track. On the hard pack snow tracks, the toes were forced to spread out a bit.This track clearly shows the hind foot toe count and you can see at least four digits on the front feet (the outer toe is held tight and doesnít show).

While the snowshoe hare, the cottontailís northern cousin, takes the cake in the big foot category our southern cousin is no slouch when it comes to snowshoeing. Take a look at this track and youíll see just how far the hind foot can spread (the heel didnít even register).By distributing the weight over a larger area, the toes supported the weight of the rabbit on top of the snow.The tinier front feet punched through the crust a bit.

All of these tracks were covering an exposed area between a Christmas tree plantation and a woodlot. There was a good 3-6 foot space between each set of prints to indicate that the leaping makers were in no mood to linger. Crossing an open snowfield on a moonlit night can be a very dangerous task for a prey animal like the Cottontail.There are a whole host of predators raining death down from the sky and from the shadowy sidelines, so the rabbits make haste when traversing open spaces.This track shows a moment of directional change in which a bunny decided to make a quick turn to his left Ė the critter slipped for a moment before bounding off. We can only imagine that he was reacting to some perceived Ė or very real- danger.

Over 75% of the wild rabbits die before they reach their first birthday and most of these hop onto the heavenly bunny trail before they are even 5 months old.So, you see, the truly lucky rabbit feet are possessed by those fortunate few that remain alive.




December 18, 2007

An Alien Presence

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 pm

I want to show you something shocking Ė something that may shake your Christmas beliefs to the very core. Grab tight to your eggnog and prepare yourself for a breathtaking glimpse of an alien life form which masquerades as a common holiday houseplant. That red and green thing you call a Poinsettia flower is actually an earthly deception.Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the real Poinsettia flower.

You see, the red petals of the Poinsettia are nothing of the sort. They are simply glorified leaves- called bracts – which serve to frame the collection of bizarre micro flowers within. To the naked eye, these flowers appear like so many greenish yellow buds. When viewed on an enlarged scale, however, true Poinsettia flowerets look like something from the world of Dr. Seuss.

The minute structures are properly called ďCyathia.Ē The Cyathians are a race of simple flowers which have no petals.A single female structure- looking for all the world like an anemone perched on a Granny Smith apple Ė projects from the top of the cup. A single red male stamen occupies the uncomfortable space next to it. The fringed cup, holding the two parts together, has a pair of bright yellow Mick Jagger lips coming out of it and the whole is supported on a narrow pedestal. I did nothing in my drawing to enhance the appearance of this unique Martian bloom. Say hello to one of the strangest flowers on earth (it just might answer you in return).

So ugly as to defy description, the flowers of the wild Poinsettia resort to a cheap advertising ploy in order to attract pollinators. The big yellow lips on the cyathia are actually nectar glands, but the flower itself has no sweet alluring scent. This is where those bright red leaves come into the picture. Red attracts hummingbirds. The scarlet leaves lure in the tiny birds and direct them to the central flowers for a sugary kiss. Red also attracts human beings, as it turns out, and this is how the plant became a Christmas standard.

The wild plant grows naturally along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America. In its native haunts it lives as a gangly perennial shrub which grows up to 16 feet in height. Around 1828, amateur botanist and U.S. statesman Joel Roberts Poinsett encountered some wild specimens in the Taxco area while stationed there as the first U.S. envoy to Mexico. He sent some cuttings home to his greenhouse in South Carolina and the rest is, as they say, history.

Within a few short years, the colorful tropical plant was developed into its familiar potted form. Horticulturist William Prescott initially named it Poinsettia pulcherrima in honor of Mr. Poinsett (here is a botanical illustration from 1836 Ė a mere eight years after the plant was introduced to the U.S.). The common name Poinsettia stuck even after the scientific name was later changed.

Being a political year, I should divulge that Joel Poinsett was a democrat who also did his turn as a South Carolina legislator and later served as Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren. His legacy as a politician remains largely ignored, but his memory lives on in the form of a beloved and bizarre Christmas plant.

December 16, 2007

Best Foot Forward

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:15 pm

Despite what they say in Chicago, snow has many good merits.Without going into an essay on snowphilia, allow me a moment to illustrate just one beneficial byproduct of the white stuff. A fresh coat of snow provides some good reading material, for instance.The subject category is mostly non-fiction with a dash of semi-fictional CSI mixed in.I am referring to the track record left by passing animals as they traverse over each newly laid page of winter.

Winter animal tracks are ephemeral things that appear and disappear with the whims of wind and temperature. You need to look while the lookingís good. Earlier in the week, the lookín was good and I chanced upon the opportunity to be looking at a set of deer and squirrel tracks.I was hoping to come upon some Yeti tracks, but you go with what you have (besides, Yetis are more common in the south part of the county). Even the lowly spoors laid down by these two numbingly-common critters are worth observation time. This is what I found (see the Fox Squirrel track here and the White-tailed Deer track here).

Encountered only moments after they were laid down, these tracks were extremely crisp and detailed. Dusty snow makes for splendid impressions. Deep snow puts everything out of focus and hard snow only gives in to heavy beasts, but a light covering over blacktop provides a perfect palette for foot art. The problem is that such a canvas melts quickly and the observer is standing in the middle of the road Ė need I say more. Letís take the pictures and some measurements and then retreat to the computer screen for safe viewing.

The Fox Squirrel set is especially nice.Squirrel tracks are easily identified by the paired clustering of four individual feet created when they bound across the ground. Their front feet strike the ground first and the hind feet make second landing in the same manner as a running rabbit. In the squirrel snow-writing world then, the first set of footmarks are created by the hind feet and the second set are the front paws.† When the heel of the hind foot makes contact, the hind foot is always bigger than the forefeet – about 1.5 inches. Just for the sake of keeping the record straight, Red squirrels make the same exact pattern, but their prints are half the size.

A toe counting exercise will reveal that the hind foot has the complete set of five and the front foot has only four. The toes on the back foot of a squirrel are arranged so that the central three are clustered together and the two outer ones angle outward. One peculiar feature youíll notice on the front foot tracks are the marks left by two round wrist pads- just behind the palm (here, take another look). You probably wouldnít think to look for these pads on the actual track maker. Pay close attention to this detail the next time an obese squirrel plants himself on your window bird feeder. These pads serve as rudimentary thumbs so that the animal can manipulate nuts and sunflower seeds with equal dexterity.

The deer tracks also provide us with an insight into their footways. Unlike squirrels, who walk on their feet, deer walk on their toes.They have four hooved toes, but only the large central hooves touch the ground when in walking mode (the so-called dew claws are higher up on the leg and only come in contact with the ground when the animal is running). Since these main hooves come together to make an arrow-like impression, they leave little doubt as to what direction the maker was headed. The actual foot of a typical whitetail is some 20 inches long and the heel or wrist is at the first bending point of the leg. When we are talking about the track measurement of a deer, we are really talking about the length of the toe nails (which are 2-3 inches in length).

This is a typical pair of walking tracks. The larger leading impression (2.5 inches long) is partially overlapped by the smaller print (1.75 inches long). Contrary to what folks might like to think, the forefoot is always slightly larger than the hind feet on a deer and so the larger print is left by the front hooves. This seems to go against our impression of typical animal foot arrangement and many track books get this fact wrong.

Since deer are such a big part of our economy and hunting heritage, youíd be amazed at the amount of folklore that surrounds deer trackology. The main focus of this pseudo-lore revolves around discerning the difference between a buck or doe track. To put it simply Ė there is no difference. There are big does and little bucks. One internet guide maintains that the wider hipped does tend to lay their hind foot print to the outside edge of the front foot print.Bucks, they continue, have wider shoulders to support their massive 24 point racks and therefore place their front foot tracks to the outside of the hind foot tracks. All of this is complicated by the fact that most folks donít know the difference between the front and hind foot track to begin with. Allow me to repeat: there are big does and there are little bucks.

Based on small size, I would guess that this delicate set of snow tracks was left by a fairly young animal of undetermined gender. I would never want to accuse any female of having big hips.

December 14, 2007

Deck the Halls with Galls

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:50 pm

Once again I find myself returning to the subject of galls, but I do so without apology.I may be showing a lot of gall in doing so, but not really.There are literally thousands of gall types and I could theoretically focus on a different gall for each of the next thousand columns. I could change the name of my site to Gallspeak and even highlight a ďGall of the MonthĒ -or not. To do so would reduce my readership by half and leave me with only one person (who happens to have the same last name as I do) out there to read this stuff.Besides, how many times can a sensible human being stand titles like ďIt takes a lot of Gall,Ē ďA Galling Truth,Ē or even ďDeck the Halls with GallsĒ before going numb.

So, I present to you two familiar plant galls that you can literally go out and see on your next outside walk.The first is called the Goldenrod Ball Gall and the second is the Goldenrod Bunch Gall.Both of these galls are found on, you guessed it, the dry winter stems of Goldenrod flowers. If your walk takes you by an un-mowed field thereís a good chance youíll find one or both of these galls.You might even want to take at least one of these galls home for further investigation or appreciation.

Before we take a closer look, let me remind you that galls are swellings or particular growth patterns caused by an insect egg. As soon as the insect lays her egg in the stem, the plant reacts to the violation of inner tissue space by forming a special scar tissue.It is believed by some that a chemical introduced by the mother insect actually imitates the growth hormones of the plant and causes it to grow in a very specific way. The egg hatches into a larvae and the larvae completes its growth inside the plant swelling.

In the case of the Goldenrod, the two galls in question are both caused by two unrelated flies (see the one responsible for the ball gall here). Both have impossible scientific names ending in solidaginis. This should give you a good indication that these gall creating insects are very loyal to their plants.The scientific name of goldenrod plant is Solidago (which means to ďmake solidĒ as in healing properties) and those insects who associate with them are given the same general name. Itís something like someone named ďBudĒ who drinks a lot of Budweiser.Thatís not a great analogy, but I hope you get my point.

The Goldenrod Ball Gall is a round hard woody structure which gives the bare stem the look of a rigid upright worm that swallowed a golf ball. ††I passed this particular structure many times over the past few months Ė taking a picture of it in October and finally taking it in last week for a closer look. I wanted to cut it open to reveal the snug fly grub that spends the winter within.Ice fishermen have long known that ball galls host a fat white ľ inch larvae perfect for attracting their quarry to the hook. Since these tender little balls of insect pultritude are vulnerable to freezing, they build up high levels of glycol antifreeze in their blood.When you take them out on a cold day they appear to be frozen solid until warming up in your palm.

This particular gall specimen proved to be empty. It is likely that the grub was attacked by a fungal growth and reduced to dust.You will also find that these galls are often pecked open by Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees who appreciate their succulent contents.If left to their own, the grubs will emerge next spring. The adult fly will exit via a tunnel chewed by the grub before it pupated and punch its way through the thin outer layer.

A completely different kind of structure is expressed by the Goldenrod Bunch Gall.This flower-like leafy growth is only found on Canada Goldenrods.Its creator is another fly called a Gall Midge which looks like a beakless mosquito.This midge lays multiple eggs that eventually hatch and enter multiple chambers created by the cluster growth. The goldenrod plant essentially ceases to grow any more stem but continues to produce an explosion of leaves.

Because the adults emerge out of these leafy galls in September, the gall insects are gone by the time you find them in winter.It is therefore relatively safe to bring bunch galls inside for ornament treatment. A nice spray of gold paint will turn them into magical natural decorations. Before beginning your artistic endeavor, however, give the thing several taps in order to remove the other critters that use them as winter homes.Yes, investigators have discovered that 30 some species of arthropods Ė from spiders, to mites, to other insects Ė use the protective cover provided by bunch galls to their advantage. To have this mini-menagerie emerge from their golden castle within the confines of your home would be, well, galling.

December 12, 2007

Finchfest 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:22 pm

The winter finches are here and they are hungry.The northern U.S. states are currently experiencing a mass visitation of tiny seed eating birds looking to satisfy their collective need for feed. Thousands of Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins have moved south from their Canadian homeland to invade our border states. Unlike their human counterparts who are here to spend their precious Loonies, these feathered Canadians are here for our Alders.

You could say they are refugees of a sort. The food resources in their native haunts have run short and they have made the southern run out of necessity. This ďmigration of necessity,Ē which occurs only on an irregular basis, is properly termed an ďirruption.ĒAs a whole these little invaders are therefore called ďirruptive winter finches.Ē Repeat after me: volcanoes erupt, finches irrupt, and small impatient children interrupt.

Although there are other irruptive birds, such as the snowy owls (one of which is currently hanging around the Lost Peninsula by Toledo, Ohio), the Redpoll and Siskin are the most common of the winter visitors. Pine Siskins (see here) are easily identified by their heavily streaked brown and cream decor. The Common Redpolls sport little black trumpet playerís beards and rosy forehead patches (see here).

Both birds are about the same size Ė which equates to around 10 grams. It might help you to picture a stack of four pennies as a way to judge what 10 grams feels like. Unfortunately, this demonstration depends upon which year those pennies represent – the post 1982 pennies weight 2.5 grams while the earlier ones weight 3.1 grams. Canadian pennies, which would be more appropriate in this case, run the gamut from 3.24 grams to the present 2.35 grams. In this scenario we could say they weight as much as four post 1982 U.S. coppers or about three 1978 Canadian pennies orÖ.letís just forget it.Suffice it to say these birds are lightweight little balls of down that need lots of food to get them through a tough winter.

One study estimated that a redpoll can eat up to 40% of its body weight (in Canadian coinage, of course) daily. While the Siskin just gobbles its food straight, the Redpoll has the ability to temporarily store seeds in a throat pouch called a divercula.It then can leisurely swallow the seeds at a later time and in a predator free place. Clever little Canadians, eh?

The abundant crop offered by a tree known as the Alder is the freezer meal of choice around these parts. European Alders, or Black Alders, are introduced members of the birch family which bear pine-like cones (strobiles). They prefer wet areas and are often found bordering marshes or rivers. The tree is deciduous and dutifully drops its leaves each fall, but they retain a heavy crop of ĺ inch cones which gives them the winter appearance of full foliage.

The finches go bonkers on these alder cones and pry out the tiny seeds from between the scales.Many of the seeds fall to the ground and the birds spend a good part of their day picking them off the snow as well.As long as the alder crop holds out, they will stick around.

If you donít have an Alder tree, thereís still a pretty good chance that youíll spot these fascinating frigid finches if you maintain a bird feeder. They love to eat out.

December 10, 2007

Quoth the Night Raven: “Maybe”

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:15 pm

†December may seem like an unusual time to talk about a summer bird like the Black-crowned Night Heron. The sight of one of these sulking water birds silhouetted against an evening sky, while perched atop a dockside post, is a common warm weather sight.True to their name, they are creatures of the post sunset world. Often their belch-like squawk is the only thing that betrays their otherwise shadowy presence.†† It is worth noting that their scientific name Nycticorax nycticorax, literally means ďNight RavenĒ (something that is apparently worth saying saying twice twice).

Since most of them migrate to the southern U.S. or Central America in the fall, the question still remains as to why I bring them up in a winter context. The simple answer is that not all of them migrate south.Every year, a gang of 15-20 hearty Night Herons elect to stay all winter in the sleepy little burg of Gibraltar, MI.Presently, there are about 17 of these birds roosting in the canal-side trees visible along Pointe Dr. & Stoflet Dr. in that riverside village. At this time of year, the aerial Heron herd is easily seen Ė something nearly impossible to do when the trees are fully clothed.

From a distance, youíll see a collection of brooding shapes Ė like so many, well, disgruntled ravens Ė scattered among the branches.The shapes are about two feet long with a sizable wingspan measuring just under four feet. Long legs testify to their wading habits and long beaks exhibit the tools of a fish eating bird. As herons, they have fairly long necks as well, but choose to hide them between hunched shoulders while perching. Gibraltar resident Ron DeWalt has been living with these wintering birds for some time now. He is one of the homeowners whose yard trees serve as daily perches. Ron was able to take a few terrific pictures of some of the birds roosting in his yard trees. His images were taken a month ago just before the last Silver Maple leaves were shed. The first picture is of an immature bird (brown with white speckles) and the second is of a mature individual (white chest, black crown and gray back).

Black-crowns donít become black crowned until their third year out of the egg.While the younger birds have a great look, the stark adult coloring is classic. Mature birds have a set of long feathers Ė like long thin white ponytails Ė trailing from the back of their heads. When landing, or taking off, this feature becomes evident.ďThey look kinda like a Bird of Paradise,Ē says Ron, ďwith those long feathers coming out.Ē

So, what is it that prompts a normally migratory bird into a non-migratory lifestyle?I canít tell you what goes on under those little black crowns, but it comes down to a question of gas.As long as the food reserves are there in the form of abundant shiners and minnows and the water remains open, the birds can re-fuel their tanks and live a relatively good life.Cold temperatures have very little to do with anything. Most large bodied birds can tolerate cold weather.They are possessed of nice down filled vests after all.Migration is a dangerous thing to do, so in this case these home bodies are simply playing the odds.

Itís worth noting that other herons, such as the Great Blue, do the same thing.Often 50 or more of these birds over winter on the shores of the Detroit River. The larger herons canít stand people, however, so they donít roost near houses and generally stay out of camera range.

If Dame Nature should decide to inflict an extremely harsh winter upon us this year, thereís a distinct chance that the brave black-capped mini-herons might be forced to re-think their tactic and move south. They all run the risk of death due to over exposure and starvation if temperatures plunge into sub zero and all available water freezes solid (thus closing access to the gas stations). As it is, the herons have not been put to the task and they continue each year as snowbirds.

Just across the creek from where the herons are roosting there is another bird ďpushing the winter envelope,Ē so to speak.A female Scarlet Tanager has opted, for whatever reason, to remain at Lake Erie Metropark this winter. She is possibly the only one of her kind in the entire northern hemisphere.All others of her ilk have migrated to South America. It is a fact of nature that tanagers in general are basically a tropical species. Sure, they visit the northern climes to enjoy the brief summer, but they quickly return to their tropical homeland in the fall. In order to re-enforce this rain forest origin one only need look at the name ďtanagerĒ to find that it stems from a mispronunciation of the ďtangarasĒ designation given them by the Tupi Indians of the Amazon.

The last time I saw the misplaced tanager, she was plucking a frozen grape from a meager cluster hanging on a wild vine. She looked good and appeared to be doing well so far. Unfortunately, the cards in this case are stacked against her.As a small bodied bird scarfing out a living in an unfamiliar time setting, she will be fighting an uphill battle.

Iím fairly confident that the Black-crowned Night Herons would publically root for the brave little tanagerís cause, but privately might express a harsher take. When asked about her odds in this affair they would shrug their shoulders and give a one word reply. Quoth the Night Raven: ďMaybe.Ē

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