Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 8, 2007

A Silent Snowy Morning

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:00 pm

  As Decembers go, this one is more wintery than usual.  Sub-freezing nighttime temperatures and crisp gray days have given the landscape a January like demeanor. My mid-week, mid- morning walk took me along familiar paths but brought me into some unfamiliar settings. The place seemed brand new.  First of all, the light dusting of snow from the previous night had transformed everything.  Every abandoned goldfinch nest was converted into a bowl of mounded sugar and each bright red Highbush Cranberry fruit was topped with a white dunce cap.  The neutral backdrop focused attention onto the intense red panicles of the Gray Dogwood, the subtle purples of the Blackberry stems, and the dead greens of the limp frozen Honeysuckle leaves.

  Each individual field plant now stood out as an individual. The dry winter remains of the Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace each sported a personal snowcap.  If I wanted to, I could have counted the exact number of these plants in the small field adjacent to the trail – an impossible feat without their snow markers.  I continued on past with a renewed awareness that a field is a collection of individuals as opposed to an amorphous collection of stems.

 Strangely quiet, nothing stirred during the first ¼ mile.  The only sound was that of a distant train and the very faint wind-carried “cooing” of Tundra Swans out on the Detroit River. A fine cold snow was falling. Millions of the nearly invisible flakes were simultaneously striking dead leaves and twigs to create a barely audible hiss. The sound could be heard only when you stopped and held your breath for a moment.

  During one of these breathless times, another light sound was permitted into my ears.  A wispy “Ti-seep, ti-seep” betrayed the presence of two Golden-crowned Kinglets foraging in the hawthorn next to me.  These mouse-sized birds brought a startling dash of golden-yellow to the picture when they presented themselves a few feet away. A plump gray Chickadee was accompanying the kinglets and added in a repetitious “Chick-ka-dee-dee-dee” chorus to their “Ti-seep” verse.  Soon the trio worked its way past my space and was enveloped back into the snow clad shrubbery.  I was left with the hissing silence once again.

  Fresh snow not only highlights individual things but it also permits the casual observer to see things that are no longer there.  For instance, a mink had passed under the boardwalk sometime within the previous hour – his tracks were still cleanly apparent in the snow.  Last night a muskrat struggled through the forming slush ice as he worked his way along the marsh shoreline.  The ice was not sturdy enough to walk on but the water was too shallow to allow passage under it, so the ‘rat was reduced to a combination of plowing and slogging to get to his destination.  His wandering slush trail records his torturous route (here you can see the mark of his tail and his pathway as he broke through and pushed on).

  The solidifying slush ice was well compacted by the time I came upon it, but it was still in the process of crystallizing.  Intricate fissures radiated through the thickening ice at various points where the water was resisting the effects of freezing.  The dendritic patterns reminded me of cosmic gas clouds or cave art renderings of deer antlers. I took a photo of this abstract display as an excuse to get an “art shot”.  I think I’ll call it “Slush Ice Pattern No. 1.” 

  My walk had no particular destination, but the constraints of human time required me to stop at some point and return.  I elected to halt at the lotus beds opposite the low offshore island called Sturgeon Bar. I should say that I halted at what used to be the lotus bed, because the plants are long gone save for the dried broken seed pod stalks. I elected to frame another art shot and pointed my instrument of digitalization at a near shore section of the late lotus bed. I’ll call this one “Lotus Bed Pattern No. 1.”  In looking at the stark beauty of the shot- rendering what was previously a muddy brown scene into a carpet of textures -I felt no need to take no. 2. 

December 6, 2007

A Christmas Tree Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:30 pm

  Here’s the situation.  I was driving down east bound I-96, O.K?  Minding my own business, I might add – so I will, add it that is.  Well, anyway, out of the blue this, this……person…..a person in a car suddenly comes in from no-wheresville and cuts me off like BAM!  I swerve like, BAM, to keep him from crumpling my left front fender.  So, while I’m attempting to stay in my lane and not hybridize with the big yellow truck next to me, I yell something.  I think I said “Merry Christmas” or “God loves you more than you can know!” or something like that.

  I happen to have my camera in the seat next to me, so I balance it on the steering wheel, center his car in the viewfinder and shoot – all this while regaining control of my vehicle.  I’ll teach him, or them, or whoever it was behind the wheel.  I’ll post their image on the internet and shame them into…well, something.  People will talk, yeah, they’ll talk and, and they’ll say things.  Justice will be mine.  I’ll file a police report. It’ll say “Subject nearly sideswiped by an unidentified driver carrying a Picea alba on the roof of a small late model vehicle.” 

    Here’s the revealing photo.  Now that a picture of this so-called driver is out there for everyone to see, I hope they realize what a b-i-g mistake they made.  You don’t cut a naturalist off and expect to get off scot free.  No siree bob.  The Christmas tree attached to that car roof, ladies and gentlemen, is none other than a White Spruce.  Spruce trees have poor needle retention. Do you think the driver knows that? Are they aware of the fact that the crushed needles on this species have an unpleasant smell?  Do they even have the faintest idea of the botany behind Christmas trees? I think not. 

  The first thing I’ll do, when my opportunity finally comes to face the offender in person, will be to sit them down in a tiny little room with a huge chart showing the different kinds of Christmas trees.  I’ll show them the basic line up of trees available to the S.E. Michigan public. 

  Michigan ranks as one of the top Christmas tree producers in the country with over 130,000 acres dedicated solely for that purpose. Most of these are sold out of state, but I will point out to the offender that people like themselves are responsible for keeping the remaining 25% of the trees instate. “Do you feel the burden of this responsibility?” I will ask. “Unsafe driving while in possession of a Christmas Tree could be a capital offense,” I’ll add with a knowing smirk. “Let’s find out what your evergreen of choice was and fit the punishment to the crime.”  At this point, I’ll point to the blank screen at the front of the room like Scrooge’s ghost. “Pay heed.”

  Although there are many different kinds of holiday evergreens, there are three basic types to focus on.  First of all, there are the pines.  Pines have long stiff needles which are clustered in bunches called Fascicles. This is the PowerPoint slide I’ll show them- it is a branchlet from a Red Pine. You can identify the different species of pine by the length and number of needles in each bundle. The Red Pine has two five inch long needles per bundle.  The Scotch Pine, the most common Christmas tree of all, also has two needles per cluster but they are only an inch or so in length.  White Pines have five needles, but they are rarely used as Christmas Trees.

  The next slide I’ll show will be of a typical spruce tree branch.  Spruces have single stout needles which are attached directly to the branch.  I’ll focus in this slide very slowly to reveal the image of a Blue Spruce.  This common Christmas tree is easily identified by its bluish cast and ¾” – 1 ½” needles when compared to the ½”- ¾” plain green needles of the White Spruce.  Both species look good on the lot, but they can quickly shed their needles upon entering a dry house environment.

  Since I don’t have a slide of a Fir branch, I’m planning on turning off all the lights at this point and whispering into their left ear the fact that the Balsam Fir is the most common representative of this last group. Like spruces, they have single needles but they are flattened, curved upward, somewhat softer, and are not as densely spaced.

  Creating a sudden blinding flash in the darkened room, I’ll flick the lights back on and demand that they repeat the implied question “Pine, spruce, or fir?  Pine, spruce or fir?” I want them to think about their choice of tree.

  “Before answering that question, you need to know one more thing,” I’ll cleverly interject. The PowerPoint will come to life once more and a microscopic image of an individual spruce needle will project onto the screen. I will point out that evergreen needles are actually leaves.  With this 200X image you can see the hundreds of tiny white pores that dot the surface.  These are the breathing pores called stomata.  “Did you know that all evergreen needles can stay active all winter long? They respire through these pores and can perform photosynthesis on warm winter days?”

  “You can’t see this micro feature on a tree that is in motion, can you? Species identification is especially difficult when the tree in question is going 150 mph” I’ll say with a wink. After a momentary pause to let that insanely satisfying statement sink in, I will bend down and inch my face close to the perpetrator’s nose and with clear enunciation of each word say, “but I managed to do it.” With a pound of the fist on the table my voice will rise in tempo. “You sir, had a white spruce, I know it to be a fact. You are the driver in this photo are you not?” The car photo will return to the screen as naked testimony.

  After I receive the necessary apology for careless tree transportation and identification from the now exposed reckless driver, my gentle nature will kick in and I’ll place my hand softly on his shoulder. “I’ll forgive you this one offense on the grounds that you chose a real tree to celebrate a real season.  In so doing you are righting the ancient tradition handed down by our 17th and 18th century Germanic cousins who hung their trees upside-down in the corner of their living rooms.  They decorated their trees with apples, nuts and strips of red paper, while you my friend are decorating yours with L-O-V-E.  Merry Christmas.”

  With that, a tiny bell will ring and my new friend and I will join together in a rousing verse of “Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree.”

December 3, 2007

The Owl is a Pussycat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:45 pm

  As you probably know by now, I try not to bring up the subject of cats unless I can point out something negative about them.  I acknowledge that this is a bad habit and I promise to work on it.  So, when I title this piece “The Owl is a Pussycat” I am making a dual feeble attempt at some wordplay in honor of the story of the “Owl and the Pussycat” (as in pea green boat fame) and to place the word “cat” in a positive manner without derisive comment.  There, I’ve done it.  I truly believe everyone should love their cat to death.

  Now, I need to explain how an owl can actually be a pussycat, because I want to write about owls – not cats.   In order to explain this phenomenon, I need only take you on a short field trip to show you a few Long-eared Owls roosting in a dense thicket at Lake Erie Metropark.  These precise little owls overwinter in the park every year, but finding them is not an easy task. Take a look here and you’ll see one of the owls perching close to the gnarled trunk of a hawthorn tree. O.K., you probably can’t see it very well – even though it is dead center in the picture. Try this shot. That should be a bit better.

  There are actually two owls in this view (there were three birds altogether).  The one thing that is apparent (or not) on the bird on the middle right branch are its prominent ear tufts.  These so-called ears are located close together and are held bolt upright when these owls are at rest – giving them the appearance of a cat and the common name of “cat owl.”  Some folks refer to these birds as “lesser horned owls” in order to contrast them with the much bigger great horned owls (which are appropriately named “flying tigers” after that much bigger member of the cat clan).  Even though they bark like little dogs and “who-who” like miniature great-horned owls, I have to admit I like the name cat owl as a descriptive name. The reference to ears and horns is misplaced, as I’ll explain in a moment.

   Although it’s hard to tell from my photos, Long-eared Owls are only about 13-14 inches in length.  They have rusty orange facial discs with a white feathered “X” separating two intense yellow eyes. The cream colored breast is heavily streaked and the light brown back is speckled with a confusing array of spots.  One thing you can tell from my photos is that these stationary birds are masters of camouflage. Their subtle coloration and habit of roosting bolt upright enables them to blend into their surroundings.

  Long-eared owls are uncommon but regular visitors to our part of the state.  The species is found all over the world from northern Europe and Asia to North America. They are known to nest in western and northern Michigan, but only show up in the S.E. part of the state during the winter.  These three birds showed up in late November and have been seen off and on for a week or so. Overwintering long-ears tend to roost together in groups of 3 to 15 birds or more and rarely sit it out alone. There is no socializing when in this daytime mode, just a mutual lethargic togetherness.

  Cat owls are strict adherents to the night-hunters code and are the most nocturnal of our regional owls. Although they roost in thickets, they hunt exclusively over open areas and old-field habitats. Long pointed wings, spreading half a hoot over three feet, are marks of an open air flyer.  Employing their excellent night vision and hearing, these birds seek their quarry by flying moth-like just over the weed tops.  The “horns” or “long-ears” in question are simply feather tufts and play no role in hearing.  The real ears are located alongside the facial discs – in about the same location as your ears are.  As in all owls, one ear opening is shaped differently than the other so as to respond to slight differences in sound direction – producing an effect that has been described as binocular hearing.

  Long-eared Owls simply love Meadow Voles and Deer Mice to death. The proof of their proficiency in this regard is expressed in the contents of their pellets.  While roosting, the owls cough up pellets consisting of the bones and compacted hair of their prey.  I once collected a season’s worth of pellets from one roosting site and examined the skeletal evidence of over 50 mice.  The mix of long bones, tiny toe nails and even whiskers was peppered with larger skulls (see the carnage here).  A closer look revealed mostly Meadow Vole skulls, but there are also quite a few Deer Mice and a token Short-tailed Shrew. I’ve taken a moment to pose three of these skulls together, tooth side up, to give you an idea how these things are identified.  In this picture, the shrew is on the left, the vole in the middle and the deer mouse on the right (note the difference in the teeth and the fact that the meat eating shrew has a lot more of them).

  This trio of Saturday owls only stayed one day at the location where I took their portrait and left no fresh pellets, but I know their stay here will result in a similar harvest of rodent death. As mousers, long-eared owls best cats by a factor of ten.  And cat hairballs – and I say this only as a statement of fact and not as a negative statement – aren’t nearly as educational as those of the cat owl.

December 2, 2007

Buck vs. Bush

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:51 am

  A few weeks ago I spotted a high four point buck crossing the parkway ahead of me. Seeing an antlered Whitetail deer in the middle of a Michigan November is not a newsworthy event, but it can be a form of religious experience for those who consider Nov. 15 a holiday.  I’m not a hunter (nor do I play one on T.V.), but I still experience the slight rise in respiration rate that usually occurs in such a situation. The bucks tend to be a secretive bunch and they limit their human exposure time.  One has to make a concerted effort not to see -or run into -antlerless deer and does, but catching a glimpse of one of these crowned autumn beasts is not an everyday event.

 The peculiar thing that really caught my eye was that the four point was dragging a ten foot section of Phragmites reed from its antlers. Actually the reed was artfully laid across his back with the dangling end arced down over his rump. The overall effect was quite graceful as the plumed deer hoofed across the road.  He stopped briefly to give me an over-the-back glance and then vaporized into the brush with his décor in tow. 

  It was apparent that this buck had just been slogging through the wetland muck before his road crossing. His legs were coated with black mud nearly up to the belly line. I assumed that he had inadvertently snagged the reed while taking a shortcut (bucks almost always take the “back way” whenever possible.)  Reed thickets are very dense.  If I had antlers strapped to my head I know my tines would accumulate a veritable haymow full of the stuff.  I, of course, am not a deer nor would I attempt the suicidal act of running through the wild with antlers during deer season. Well, as it turns out, my initial assumption in this regard was altered by an observation I made yesterday.

  Bucks have only one thing on their mind during the rut– that thing would be the feminine does. The males spend all summer regrowing their antlers with the goal of producing the biggest pair possible.  Does don’t pay too much attention to the individual antlers sported by their suitors, but the bucks themselves use the visual signal presented by a large rack to assert dominance over other bucks and to engage them in battle if necessary. Big antlers, in other words, clear away the dating competition.  It takes a lot of energy to grow these things.  Antler tissue grows very rapidly and the forked bony structures bloom by several inches a week.  By the time fall rolls around the antlers are at full size and their owners go into an anti-bush phase.  No, I don’t mean anti-presidential, I mean that they begin to attack shrubbery, small trees and even a few large ones (here’s a buck challenging a tree).

 The initial idea for vegetative aggression is to knock off all the dried “velvet” skin that coated the antler as it grew, but eventually the activity becomes a one-sided sparring match of bone against bark. Like a boxer training for the big fight, the bucks are able to hone their left hooks and build up their neck muscles. Flora that has been attacked by a testosterone soaked warrior will bear the mark of combat in the form of shredded bark and exposed strips of inner wood (see here).  Individual bucks will return to the same tree time after time and the damage becomes extensive. Such a damage mark is called a “buck rub” for obvious reasons.

  Because rubs expose light colored inner layers of the stem, they can be spotted from quite a distance and apparently this is the idea.  Each rub is also coated with an invisible layer of scent that comes from glands on the forehead of the rub maker.  They act as both visual and smelly signposts to mark out the territory of a particular buck.  

  Yesterday I stopped to investigate one of these buck rub sites along the parkway. At this spot there are three red pines.  Each tree bears the distinctive marks of Cervid abuse on their southeast side (see here).  Take a look at this wider view of one of the trees (here) and you’ll notice some large reed stems lying on the ground at the base. Upon closer examination I found that each reed was bent at the center and in beat up condition.

  Since there are no reed patches within 500 yards of this location, the combination of reed and rut site leads me to one conclusion:  here is the rubbing site for my Phragmite clad buck. There are a half dozen reeds laying about, so apparently this animal makes a habit of snagging reeds before beating the snot out of them against these trees.  His adornment is apparently no accident.

  The only thing I can say is that maybe this buck, a mere four pointer, perceives that he has little chance of competing with the big boys so he employs a bit of theatre in order to enhance his image.  

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