Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 28, 2008

From Here They All Look Like Ants

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:39 pm

Before today, I would have thought that a “Raven 44” flying machine was one of Harry Potter’s broomsticks. Now I know that this species of Raven is a whirly bird – a sleek deep maroon helicopter that seats four.  I know that because I was one of the four seat occupants that rode in one this morning.

  When I stumbled into the hanger at the Oakland County International Airport off of M-59, the other three guys were already there.  They eyed me up as I walked across the echoing concrete floor. Mark and John, fellow Metropark employees, immediately engaged in a bout of weight guessing. Mark declared “he looks like a 190,” as he slapped me on the back in greeting. The pilot, Chuck Blaylock of Magnum Helicopter Services, declared that would be o.k. and went on to tell me that he had estimated our combined weights in order to determine fuel use. I protested slightly that I wasn’t quite 190 pounds- more like 185 or 6-, but that my puffy coat made me look fat. He simply glanced over his paperwork and said “let’s go.”

  The huge hanger door was lifted, the copter shuttled out on a hand cart (I’m not kidding), and we bundled into the cockpit.  Since my coat was so puffy, you understand, I had a hard time packing myself in and finding the seat belt latch.

  The reason for this helicopter ride was to conduct a portion of our annual Metropark deer survey. Since today’s flight was scheduled to go over my domain at Lake Erie Metropark, I claimed naturalist rights for a seat. We’ve been surveying deer numbers for years, but up until now I was never one of the flyboy “we” folk.  My job today was as a secondary spotter and data tabulator. In other words I was to write down the numbers on an aerial photo as the animals were sighted. John and Mark were seated in back in order to look out their respective sides. Chuck, well, he was supposed to fly the thing.

  Without going on too much about the ride itself, let me say that one of the best parts, besides sitting in front next to the pilot, was wearing a headset. Once the props get whirling, it gets pretty noisy in the cabin, so we had to communicate with each other via headset microphones.  All of us sounded just like those air traffic controller people except that we said stupid things (like “Oh, look at that bright yellow house” or “This is cool”). Chuck sounded appropriately official as he announced that “Helicopter 141 Delta Charley” was underway and requesting permission to enter the air space around Detroit Metro Airport.

 The latest coating of fresh snow turned even the suburban portions of the landscape into winter wonderlands.  Backyards were pristine with only a few tracks leading to the bare spot in the driveways were the cars were parked overnight.  Matchbox cars whirred along on their appointed tasks and even a local junkyard looked magical from 400 feet up. 

  Frozen lakes were criss-crossed with linear snowmobile tracings and peculiar pock mark tracks led to dark holes in the ice where fishermen had augured their lucky holes (fortunately these tracks led away from the holes as well!).

    Our trip initially took us over the wooded terrain of Lower Huron, Willow and Oakwoods Metropark.  These are long narrow parks bordering the winding course of the Huron River. Chuck brought us down to about 100 feet as we entered park airspace. Four pairs of eyes then began to scan the ground beneath the skeletal trees. 

  Almost immediately, four deer were spotted at the north end of Lower Huron. I dutifully marked them down on the map and peered down at the tiny deer running beneath my feet. The second one in this initial group was a buck still bearing antlers, but it proved to be the only antlered buck we spotted all morning (not surprising since most have dropped their armament by now). On a cold morning like this (it was a negative “niner” degrees Celsius according to the weather voice that occasionally drifted through our headsets) the deer were bedded down.  The passing and re-passing of the copter inspired them to stand up and be counted. This shot gives you an idea of what four deer look like from our perspective. 

  Even though the clear blue day and bright white background helped out tremendously, deer counting is a challenging eyeball exercise.  None of us are under the illusion that we see every animal, but these counts are for relative and not absolute numbers.  By the time we reached the southern end of Oakwoods Metropark, at Flat Rock, we had tallied about 150 deer (I never did get time to tally these numbers up). The biggest single gathering was a herd of 17 individuals. Most were in herdlets of 3 to 5 head. Along the way, several hundred geese, a dozen Red-tailed hawks, and one lone coyote presented themselves for non-mathematical observation.

  The final approach to Lake Erie Metropark was signaled by the bright slate blue surface of the Detroit River ahead.  There is no finer vista than that offered by the curve of the earth horizon over the waters of Lake Erie at the river mouth (see the Detroit River lighthouse and the expansive Pte. Mouillee marshes south of the park in this photo). At this point I was busily snapping pictures, recording data, and directing Chuck over the marshlands and scrub areas– multitasking to be sure. A flock of 15 wintering Great Blue Herons flew across the reed bed below us.  Three immature Bald Eagles flushed from their roost at the south end of the park and headed out over the river mouth to the refuge of Celeron Island.  Hundreds of coot and large white Tundra Swans dotted the near shore waters.

  Our first pass over didn’t produce too many deer sightings.  Their trails and bedding spots were very apparent from the air – as were the distinctive scraping areas where they pawed the snow to get at the grass.  On the second crossover, however, the critters began to move. During one period, when we were barely 85 feet from the ground, I was able to snap this picture of a befuddled doe.  Although many of the animals eventually looked up, she was still searching the surrounding woods for the cause of our whirring noise. I felt like opening the door and yelling down to give her a heads up, but resisted the temptation (and my fellow crew’s wrath).

  In all, we recorded some 42 deer at “my” park along with two stationary ice fishermen on the ice shelf. “Look how close they are to the open water,” John piped through the headset. “Yeah,” let’s hope we don’t scare ‘em off into the lake,” somebody else said.  With that, the count was done and N141-DC headed back towards Pontiac.

  On the ground, all those tiny deer gain quite a bit in relative body size. Of course, they gain that size by feasting on the native vegetation. The purpose behind our survey was to monitor the deer population and keep a management check on that very vegetation. Our numbers will be crunched and incorporated into a larger management plan, but for now the benefit was strictly personal.  I got a chance to picture myself, eyes fixed in a pensive gaze, with those cool headsets on.

February 26, 2008

Slip Slid’n Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:28 pm

  You have to admit that it is funny to see someone trip or slip. Call it human nature, call it sadistic pleasure, call it what you will – our taking pleasure in someone else’s sudden lack of control is a very human thing. Of course, our better nature immediately takes over if the slip or the trip results in injury, but luckily we humans are made of fairly durable stuff (so we bounce rather than break).  What would “America’s Funniest Videos” be, after all, without the forces of gravity and the people who manage to film others in the act of being defeated by it?

  On this note, can you honestly tell me that the only reason you watch Olympic ice skating events is strictly to marvel at athletic or artistic prowess? No, you expect to see someone take the plunge – to end up ingloriously sprawled and spinning out of control into the side boards. Seeing such a thing is comforting to those of us who have no athletic skill. It is a chance to see a world class athlete assume a familiar greenhorn position. It confirms that ice is indeed slippery.

  Winter, of course, offers daily opportunities for blundering on natural ice. Trekking over glaze ice is a tenuous thing for us bipeds, but I’d like to switch gears to the animal world for a moment (this is a nature column). We might mistakenly believe that quadrupeds – four legged critters – are much surer footed on such medium. I would like to present a few case studies to prove that such is not the necessarily the case.

  Last week, I came across abundant track evidence of animal slippage on the ice. A light dusting of snow covered the hard icy patches and any critter passing over them was duly recorded.  Many of those animals slipped. You didn’t have to be there to witness the events since they were recorded in crisp clarity.  

  Take this set of Fox Squirrel tracks, for instance. Let’s hang the scientific stuff for a moment and just look at the story this set of prints can tell. The squirrel was headed toward the left of the photo when it was suddenly compelled put on the brakes.  As you can see, it had no ability to stop its forward momentum and slid for some distance. At the end of the slide, it was able to make a right angle turn and jump off into the sheltering woods.

  I can only surmise that an approaching car or predator was cause for the action, but the tracks are silent on this aspect of the story.

  Deer, equipped as they are with hard pointed toes, are especially prone to slipping.  They have an extremely hard time maintaining balance when on ice. Take a look here and you can see ample proof of this. One can almost hear the “oops,” or “whoas” as the less than sure footed critters attempt to recover their dignity. Here’s another set with a few “leg swing outs” and “toe pirouettes.”  This small patch of ice (see here) proved to be a completely un-nerving experience for an entire herd of toe-walkers (I believe pandemonium would be the word here)!

  It is amazing that none of the deer in this case ever fell on their bums. That all apparently recovered their balance with cat-like agility is credit to their remarkable physical abilities. Still, it gave me small pleasure to know that these graceful animals can be just as incredibly awkward as we are on ice. Call me human, but I find that fact strangely comforting.

February 24, 2008

Death at a Feeder

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:38 am

Today an older couple from Trenton stopped in to satisfy their curiosity about a recent sighting.  Their names will remain unstated because, frankly, I never got their names! “Are there Martens here?” she asked with slightly squinting eyes indicating her expectation of a negative answer. She had just taken off her tight knit cap so that her silvery hair was matted down tight to her head– making her eyes and nose look larger than normal. Upon receiving my expected negative answer, she shook her head and began to describe a furry chocolate brown creature with a long tail – in other words a perfect description of a mink. She retorted that it was “quite big (holding her hands about 24 inches apart) and that it had a wide head (forming a triangle with her hands about the size of a large snapping turtle head).” It couldn’t be a mink, according to her, “that’s why I was looking on the internet to find out what it was.” A picture of a Pine Marten was the only thing she saw, though she didn’t elaborate on the details of her Google search. Given the exchange, I felt her search criterion was probably something like a “hairy brown animal larger than a mink even though I don’t know how big a mink is.”

  I assured her that by all accounts, they had seen a male mink and that the creatures are relatively common, though rarely seen due to nocturnal habits. Martens have large ears, are lighter grayish brown and, most importantly, are not found anywhere near southern Michigan. I even showed them (really her, because he said little the whole time) a study skin mount of several mink as well as a marten mount for comparison. She reluctantly agreed to the mink I.D. but was obviously flummoxed by the size.  Her husband piped in with a verbal agreement that my larger mount was pretty close to the actual size of the mystery critter. It took another explanation that a living animal looks a whole lot fluffier and robust than a dried out, artificially positioned, ten year old mount before she submitted.

  Hoping to God that I hadn’t just un-convinced somebody out of a rare marten sighting, I asked about the circumstances of the encounter. “It came to our bird feeder,” she said. “There were some squirrels and a couple of muskrats feeding there.”  “Muskrats?” I interjected in an obviously confused manner. “Yes, there were two muskrats. Anyway, this mink ran up to the feeder and chased the squirrels off – well, he chased them up to the base of a tree, but looked more like he was chasing them off rather than, you know, chasing them.”  “Have you seen muskrats at your feeder before?” I continued on point. “No, and there isn’t really any water nearby, but anyway…the mink even put his paws up on the tree and looked up as if it was going to go after those squirrels. But, it turned and ran back over to the muskrats.”

  Apparently anticipating my next question, she went on without pause and said, “and no, the muskrats didn’t try to run away or anything. Then,” holding her hat in hand and leaning over into my face (her hair was fluffing out by now so that her eyes didn’t seem quite so bulging nor her warmed up nose quite so big) she whispered “and then, the mink went up to the muskrat and looked it right in the eye, like this.  It was only a few inches away (which she demonstrated with uncomfortable effect).  “Did either ‘rat move or try to run?” I asked while backing away. “No. Both of them just sat there. Suddenly the mink jumped at the nearest muskrat just like that!  It grabbed it by the back of the head – by the neck- and held on.  The muskrat couldn’t do a thing and couldn’t turn around.  It flailed around but not much else.  The mink wrapped its front legs around the muskrat from behind and just held on and would not let go as they rolled around.”

  Her account had unexpectedly turned into a riveting tale of predator vs. prey, so I pressed for details. “What did the other ‘rat do. Did it run away? Did the attacked ‘rat rear up or bear its teeth or anything?”  “The other one just walked away, it didn’t run – it just kinda walked off.  The first one might have reared up but it happened so quick that it really didn’t have a chance.  Pretty soon it was dead and the mink dragged it off.”

  “We were so shocked,” she said, “that we didn’t have time to take any pictures. We tried, but they came out really blurry. Do mink normally do that kind of thing?”  I assured them that they had witnessed an event that normally occurs under the cover of darkness or behind the thick veil of cat-tails. Mink are muskrat predators.

  There were two things (perhaps three if you count two muskrats at a bird feeder) that were odd about this encounter. First of all, the whole thing happened out in the full sun of mid day. Secondly, the muskrat pair made no attempt to clear the premises when the mink appeared on the scene.  They had plenty of opportunity, given the squirrel chase and all. Even when face to face with their ancestral enemy, their demeanor remained calm (perhaps stupefied would be a better description).

 Apparently these ‘rats were a set of fringe animals struggling to survive.  Their judgment clouded by hunger, the exposed promise of bird seed proved irresistible to them. I have seen several similar muskrats as of late that are living out of culverts like so many homeless people. Late winter population pressures have forced them out of prime habitat and into the hinterlands. These ‘rats are extremely vulnerable to predation, disease, exposure, or the sudden finality of tire death.

  Our mink, ever the opportunist and perhaps a bit on the fringe himself, took advantage of the situation and elected to go for the kill. Normally a healthy muskrat is more than a match for a mink. They will do everything possible to avoid an encounter, but when cornered they can duke it out with great effect. In a contest of mink vs. muskrat, there is no guarantee that the mink will come out on top. Unless they have the advantage of surprise, the well advised mink will avoid any direct attack on an adult ‘rat. 

    In this case, the muskrats were weak and the mink immediately perceived it.  There was no surprise attack, it was direct and frontal. I am satisfied with the graphic portrayal given me by the intense visitor, but selfishly wish that I could have witnessed this scene myself. I am slightly haunted by her description of that moment when the mink approached the ‘rat and gazed directly into its inner being. She was looking direct into my eyes and I was rendered momentarily uneasy at the invasion of my personal space. This, however, heightened my perception of what transpired between those two creatures.

   They say that the predator and the prey are linked at a level above mere sustenance and that they are mutually dependent – each upon the other. Both are subject to the whims of weather and hard times. It’s all there in some ancient unspoken contract. I suppose it’s possible that in that brief pre-attack moment the gift of life was willingly passed according to the demands spelled out in the fine print.

  I also know that what started out as a teaching moment for me became one in which I became the pupil.

February 21, 2008

Arakun’s Up and Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:39 pm

  This winter has been a doozey in many respects.  Although punctuated with warm days and periods of snowlessness (is that a word?) there have been equally long sessions of bitter cold and snow to balance them out.  Members of the Arakun tribe long ago adopted a wait and see strategy to deal with winters such as these.  In other words, they wait out the cold snaps and come out during the late winter warm spells.  This last bout of warmth (a relative term used by us northerners) has encouraged the Arukuns to spill out over the countryside.  The critters look out of place in a snowy setting – something like your hairy neighbor walking out to get the Sunday paper in his bathrobe and bare feet. The fact is that you don’t usually see either of them. The track evidence is enough to decipher both Arakun activity and the actions of your neighborhood Yeti.

  The Arakun critters we are talking about here are Raccoons.  Like our Coyotl discussion earlier, the name of this familiar bandit derives from a slight slander of their Indian name. In this case, the original name was bestowed upon them by the Algonquin speaking peoples of North America. Say “Arakun” enough and you will find yourself saying “A Raccoon.” Drop the “A” and you have the present name, although many simplify that to plain old “coon.”

  Raccoons are basically southern beasts that have learned to tolerate northern winters by getting fat (perhaps your neighbor does the same thing?). Healthy early winter coons can pinch nearly an inch of the life saving flab which accounts for well over 1/3 of their total body weight. They retire to denning sites, such as abandoned woodchuck burrows and hollow trees, when the snow begins to fly.  The first few months are spent in a drowsy sleeping state.  This is not hibernation, but an effective way to conserve energy that allows their bodies to maintain heat by burning off the fat reserves.

  By the time the late winter thaws arrive, the coons are starting to feel the need to begin re-stocking their internal cupboards. They pepper the snowy landscape with their prints as they wander far and wide foraging for food.  

  Here is a typical set of raccoon tracks.  The one thing you’ll notice on this set is their resemblance to tiny human hands. Each foot leaves an impression with five finger-like toes. The hind foot is larger -2 inches or so -and leaves a full sole impression (raccoons, like bears, skunks, and your neighbor, are so-called plantigrade walkers that put full weight on their soles when walking).

  In cases where the critter walks in deeper snow (see here) the toes are harder to see. There are swish marks made by the tail in this last example, but normally that kind of thing doesn’t show up. What you will notice on any set of coon tracks is that they are laid down in pairs with the front and hind feet marking the snow right next to each other (see here).

  Today I followed an extensive set of raccoon tracks that bounded back and forth along a creek. At many points, the tracks ventured out onto the ice or ended at the open water. It was apparent that this animal was searching in the stream for victuals. The creek was flush and the rushing cold water was not very conducive for the usual Arakun hand fishing method. After a quarter mile, though, I did find the remains of a very large crayfish pulled out onto the bank (see here). It was “rent asunder” by the coon and no doubt provided a nice seafood entrée.

  The fishercoon was long gone by the time I arrived on the scene this afternoon, but there was enough evidence before me to reconstruct a potentially mesmerizing picture. Last night there was a total eclipse of the moon.  By 11 pm, the earth’s shadow enveloped the lunar face and the full moon glowed with a deep copper radiance.  I can picture our coon as a ghostly form moving about the snowscape – his nightshine temporarily removed. A few crisp splashes and the crunching of crawdad shell would have cut through the still night air as he made his find.

  This night of the blood moon was bitter cold, so the coon – his hunger temporarily satisfied – hurried back over the flats and entered his cozy den.  By the time the moon was restored to its full face in the wee hours, our raccoon was sound asleep and dreaming of the next thaw. 

February 19, 2008

The Passing of a Song Dog

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:52 pm

The passing of a song dog occurs more frequently than we might be aware of. Song dogs are out and about during the full extent of the cold season and leave evidence of their wanderings in the form of crisp snow tracks.

  You may have guessed that I am about to embark on another track treatise and that I have introduced the subject in my usually obtuse manner. Song Dog is a euphonic name for the coyote, by the way. This nick name came from their propensity to yip and yap at the full moon, but their common name derives from a corruption of their original Native American label. The coyote name, in fact, came from the same Central American folks who brought us the word tomato. Tomato was “tumatl” and coyote was “Coyotl.” Don’t ask me how the “l” graduated down the alphabetic line to “o” in the first case, but I suspect the “l” in coyotl caused too many tongue injuries in frustrated Europeans trying to pronounce it.  The “e” ending simply made things easier to say – just like it made chocolatl easier to eat.

  While keeping track of name origins is important, knowing the track at hand is even more important in this case. Earlier in the winter I spied a lone coyote loping along the edge of a corn field. As is usual among this species, it appeared to be self absorbed and laid down his feet in a mantra-like beat pattern. It was a good half mile away and I initially felt that I was unobserved, but the wily beast stopped every 10 yards to throw a glance over in my direction to prove me wrong. Only smart coyotes survive in this area and so they must be constantly aware of all that is near and far. Most eastern coyotes have turned to nocturnal habits and so they stay out of our way for the most part. We must rely on their track evidence to give testimony to their abundance.

  I spotted this set of coyote tracks last week on a morning after a nice overnight snowfall. At first glance you’ll probably remark that they appear very dog-like (as the animal itself does). As fellow members of the canine corps, coyotes and dogs share many traits – not the least of which is a four-toed foot with a central pad.  There are a few particular differences that can help separate their tracks, however.

  First of all, the average coyote track is about 2 ½ inches long, while dog tracks can vary from glorified rat-sized Chihuahua prints to cattle sized Great Dane spoor. A German Shepherd would leave a track similar in size to that of a coyote, but it will reveal its “dogginess” by the fact that the paw print is nearly round in outline.  If you draw an imaginary line outlining the borders of a dog track you will trace out a fairly circular shape. A similar exercise with a coyote track will reveal a narrow oval. The coyote track is more pointed and is narrower than a dog’s print.

  Both dogs and coyotes set down their feet in a repetitious pattern which leaves a single hind foot mark adjacent to a front foot. The larger of the set is the front foot in both cases. If you take a look at how these multiple tracks line up, you will see another coyote sign marker. Coyotes pretty much keep in a relatively straight line when they walk, while dogs will veer and angle about (especially in the presence of hydrants). This dotted line trait is also indicative of foxes, but they have much smaller feet. 

  Now that you know what to look for in a coyotl trackl, it’s time to go in pursuit of the story behind a set of rare winter Arakun prints. But, that will have to wait until next time.

February 17, 2008

Veryclose Voles

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:39 pm

  A substantial layer of snow is a God-send for some animals. While a cold blanket of the stuff can spell hardship for the likes of turkeys, deer, and larger critters, the small and meek are comforted by its sheltering cover. Meadow Voles, being of the small and meek ilk, take advantage of snow cover to explore places normally off limits for foraging trips. You could say that snow allows them to eat without being eaten. This picture illustrates just how they do it.

  Among all the deer tracks you’ll notice a branch-like pattern of raised snow looking like a set of varicose veins bulging from the whiteness (excuse the anatomical reference, but it was the only one I could come up with). These are the runways created by Meadow Voles seeking greens out on an open lawn. Like bugs under a rug, the mice are able to tunnel out into the exposed grass and do so knowing that aerial predators such as red-tailed hawks, kestrels, or owls can’t see them. As the perennial protein choice of nearly every predator in existence, Meadow Voles strive to keep out of the food chain for as long as possible. Feeding out in the open is a sure invitation for early induction into the chain. Voles spend most of their time under the cover of high field grasses until snowfall draws them out into the shorter stuff.

   It has been shown that these nocturnal mice become more active in the daytime when living with snow insurance. This interesting snow tunneling pattern is a common late winter sight (here’s another set). You can see that the tunnels branch out from the adjacent field and provide a record of feeding sorties to and from the lawn. It seems that hungry voles are desperate for some luscious greens after a subsistence diet of dry shrub bark and seeds.

  Under the snow, the tunnels are shallow highways arched over with grass and their structure becomes visible once the snow retreats (see here).  The runways become littered with grass clippings and droppings – the mice finding no immediate need to be sanitary in these temporary alleyways. Meadow voles are voracious eaters and can consume 60% of their weight daily. Sometimes they even resort to cannibalism, but only under stress (as if life as a walking snack isn’t stressful enough).

  Meadow Voles, also known as Meadow Mice or field mice, are probably the most common and successful rodent in North America. They are found in field environs stretching from Alaska to the Midwest.  They are cylindrical in shape and covered with a dark brown pelt that lightens to a silvery sheen on the tummy (see here).  In hand (see here) they reveal their mousey good looks, but unlike others in the mouse clan they possess relatively short tails and ears. These short characters define them as members of the Vole tribe. The scientific name of the common meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus, means “short-eared mouse from Pennsylvania” in Greek (the Pennsylvania part being where the original specimen was described by the 19th century naturalist George Ord).

  The snow cover that created the conditions that allowed us to see the tunnel evidence has vanished in the last two days.  The Vole that made them is likely dead by now, but worry not, for there are millions more to replace him.  Their tremendous eating capabilities are matched by their tremendous reproductive abilities.  A female can crank out 3-10 pups and get them out of the house in a little over a month before immediately starting on another batch. They are love machines making tunnels of love.

February 15, 2008

Waxing Poetic

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:39 am

A marvelous thing is the Waxworm/ To beekeepers it makes their heart squirm/ To panfish’s delight, / They’re a wonderful sight,/ But to call it a “worm” is the wrong term. 

  I begin my third, and final, installment in my Ice Fishing Entomology series with this pathetic little verse in order to justify the “waxing poetic” title. Waxworms are in a category apart from their fellow bait mates, the wigglers and mousies, because they do not reside with them in the refrigerator section.  No, my latest purchase of “Waxies” came from a container directly behind the counter. Jeff, the guy behind that counter, looked a bit confused as I pushed aside the cans of Pepsi in the cooler and asked about his waxworms.  “They’re here,” he said while reaching for a box immediately behind him at the cash register.

  My first lesson about wax worms was that they don’t need to be refrigerated.  They can be, but don’t do as well when submitted to cool conditions.  Up until the moment they are plunged into the icy depths at the end of a hook, they are terrestrial warm air loving creatures. Here’s what a pile of them looks like when dumped unceremoniously out onto the table. At fist glance, they look very much like grubs and bear a passing resemblance to the pale white rat-tailed maggots we discussed earlier.

  A closer look reveals something quite different.  They have legs – short and stubby, but real – and walk on them like they know how to use them. They also have a definite head end with a shield like patch behind the head.  Wax worms aren’t worms at all, they are insects. Specifically, they are the caterpillar stage of the Greater Wax Moth.

  As caterpillars, they possess 12 body segments and a head capsule.  There are three thorax segments and nine abdominal ones.  I’m sure you find that fascinating.  If so, you’d better hold onto your seats when I reveal that there are 16 legs on this fleshy little fellow – six are immediately behind the head, eight more are found beginning two segments down, and two more at the very end. That’s a lot ‘o legs to deal with.  Once they become adult moths, they only need to contend with six legs.

  Insects don’t breath through their mouths. Land living ‘sects breath through tiny holes in their sides called spiracles.  You can see these openings as tiny dots along the sides of the Waxworm.  The head end, aside from possessing jaws, also contains spinnerets for silk production. The sawdust medium they are kept in is often joined by a mat of silk laid down by the caterpillars as they roam about the place (see here as I lift a string of sawdust laden silk).

  Commercially these larvae are raised not only for pan-fish bait, but find a year round market as a pet food product. Caged birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even hedge hogs and sugar gliders all enjoy their fatty goodness.  My bait examples, as well as those destined for pet palpitation, are raised in a clean dry environment and are fed dry dog food, or Gerber mixed cereal, mixed with honey or sugar. This sweet tooth betrays they’re original position in the natural world as nest parasites in honeybee colonies.

  Waxworms are the scourge of bee-keepers. These moths specialize in invading weakened hives to allow their larvae to feast upon the bee cocoons, shed skins, droppings, honey and pollen dust. In the process the caterpillars burrow through the beeswax and weave silken galleries throughout.  An infected comb is a mess (see here).

  It is to the waxworm’s credit that they are able to resist attacks by their hosts.  Beginning with the second stage after hatching they make a pliable silken tube from which to conduct their business.  This silk barrier is impervious to the bees, so the caterpillar continually enlarges it as it develops. The old silk is eaten and new silk produced. Once mature and measuring 1 inch or so in length, the tube is abandoned and the caterpillar seeks a place to make a cocoon and pupate.

  In the wild, Wax Moths overwinter in the hive as a pupae and emerge the following spring. In captivity, the breeders only allow a few to reach adulthood – the rest being sent out as sacrificial child laborers.

  Fortunately, maintaining healthy hives is the best way to prevent an infestation of waxworms. The goal of any bee keeper is a world without waxworms, but that will never happen.  This parasite will never disappear from the scene because it is has found a niche in our economy. As long as there a hungry hedgehogs and ravenous Bluegills, the waxworm will live on behind the counter.

A caterpillar living with bees,/  Is in danger, one plainly sees./  One mis-taken move,/  Surely will prove,/  Quite deadly to one with sixteen knees!

February 12, 2008

Alouetta, Gentile Alouetta

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:34 pm

I know it’s not safe to snap photos while driving, but doing so while on an isolated back country road is not as unsafe as doing it, say, on a busy interstate during rush hour. Life is relative, after all. Being that I was the only one on this particular stretch of snowy road, I gave myself permission to make the attempt to capture a flock of frolicking larks in the road ahead. The problem was that the flock of nervous birds would not sit still long enough for me to creep close enough to get them in my viewfinder. I crept, they flew, I crept, they flew.  You get the idea. 

  It was only upon the approach of a big blue snow plow that I, the camera, and a single lark were able to meet in time.  I snapped this picture and gunned my truck forward just before the plow, I, and the camera could meet at a single point in time. O.K., the picture’s not that great but at least it records the presence of a bird we frequently see along our roadsides – the Horned Lark.

  Our country roads frequently host winter flocks of Horned Larks who gather upon them to eat dirt – or more properly gravel.  In this situation, patches of the dirt road were exposed by the action of the plow. The sparrow-sized birds ingest tiny pebbles which end up in their gizzards as food grinders. As seed eaters, larks appreciate the grindstone qualities of good road gravel.

  If I were to literally follow the instructions laid out by that innocent little French song “Alouetta Alouetta, je te plumerai” I could show you one of those stony little gizzards.  This innocent little ditty is about a lark – a little gentle lark – being torn asunder.  First you rip off his little beak, his head, take out his eyes and tear open his back and do so in a merry euphonic manner. Why, you may ask? “To eat eet, but of course Monsieur,” would be the indignant French reply. People eat songbirds in Europe and find great pleasure in singing about it – “four and twenty blackbirds” for instance.

  Although I came upon 25 larks on that snowy stretch of road, not a one offered itself up for culinary inspection.  I also was not in Europe on a lark, but in West Michigan, so you’ll just have to take my gizzard description at face value.

  Horned larks are the only lark species found in North America. A long time ago a rabid group of Shakespeare fans tried to introduce Sky Larks here because they were mentioned by the Bard, but they were unsuccessful in this endeavor. Our native lark does a fine job of representing the clan. It is a pretty little thing, though not flashy. A black gorget hangs about the neck, and the yellowish face is accented with a black face mask framed by black eyebrows that terminate as little horns. Take a look at this professional shot (probably not taken from a car window) and you can clearly see the horns, but keep in mind that the birds don’t always erect these tufts. 

  The best way to describe their call is as a tinkling “ti-ti-ti”.  Theirs is a light airy sound that is often rendered as a series of bubbly ascending notes. My roadside flock tinkled out into the nearby cornfield and waited my passing.  Horned Larks are an open country bird – a prairie species really – that finds comfort in exposed fields and low cut grasslands. They will stick to this airy habitat as spring approaches and even manage to get off an early brood before spring plowing occurs.

  It was my intention to simply introduce the bird to you and be done with it, but I find that my use of the word “flock” to describe the roadside gathering might be somewhat controversial. Here in America, you see, it’s perfectly acceptable to use that term for a gang of larks but in Europe they have no fewer than five different terms for the same thing. On the outside chance that a Parisian reads this and scoffs at my ignorance (le stoo-peed commoner, no?), I will list the following descriptive words that have been used to designate a group of larks. You can have an ascension of, a chattering of, exaltation of, a happiness of, or even a springul of larks. 

  I have to admit that espying an exaltation of Horned Larks sounds so much interesting than just watching a flock of ‘em. 

February 10, 2008

Turkey in the Corn

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:52 pm

You never know when it’s time to talk turkey, but when that time arrives it’s best to take advantage of it.

 This weekend, I ventured over to the west side of the state to northern Kent County.  The area north of Grand Rapids is getting hammered with lake effect snow this winter. Over a foot of the white stuff sits on the level ground and wind blown drifts are cresting over the weed-tops. Driving down an unplowed back country road through the rolling fields of the northern county, I spied a tremendous flock of wild turkeys in the distance. They were foraging in a stubble cornfield ahead.  Since there was absolutely no traffic, I simply stopped the truck in mid road and reached for my binoculars to take in the scene. A mist of fine snow obscured the distance, but I was able to count at least 60 of the big dark birds spread out over a half mile.

  Even though a substantial space separated them from me, a few alert avian heads shot upright and made note of my halted progress on the road. Soon the whole gang began to crane their necks and look about in confusion. A few of them continued to scrape away the snow cover like so many barnyard fowl and others were blissfully chasing one another with loping -almost dinosaur like -gaits. At any given time at least a half dozen birds managed to shoot a stink eye in my direction and keep abreast of me (that was a little joke, by the way). They all began to gravitate back towards the tree line in slow retreat. 

  Over the course of a few minutes I was able to determine that a majority of the birds were beardless and therefore females (that was not a joke).  Turkeys gather together into winter flocks based on sex and age. Hens, like the females in this group, stick together to form a sisterhood of survival. Young males, or jakes, will form separate gangs as will the adult males called Toms.  All this separate but equal stuff will end with the onset of the breeding season, but for now segregation is the law. Male turkeys are distinguished by their larger size, possession of fighting spurs on their legs, and long bristly tufts coming out their mid chest (these tufts are very hair-like in consistency and thus the reason they are called beards).  Like people, hens can sometimes have beards but, unlike people, the turkeys don’t relegate them to the circus sideshows.

  I decided to step out of the truck, leaving it in the middle of the road, to walk a short way into the field to take a look at some of the turkey sign.  Hens usually weigh about 8-10 pounds or so, so their bulk impresses a clear track into the moist snow.  They walk by placing one foot directly in front of the other and so leave a linear line of footprints when on the move. Here you can see a single wrinkled print with three large forward pointing toes and a small mark made by the tiny back toe. (Here’s another print with a 6 inch pen next to it  for size reference).  The field was pockmarked with deep scrape holes that exposed the soil level. The turkeys were gleaning corn grains left by the fall harvest.

  During the time I was investigating this sign, the whole flock had pulled together into a dark cautious mass about a quarter mile away along the tree line.  They clearly didn’t want to leave the field unless they had to.  Even if it took energy to dig down to it, the promise of waste grain was more than worth the effort. The pressures of finding late winter food reserves are made all that more difficult by heavy snow conditions.  Woodland nut crops, the mainstay of turkey fare, are buried under the deep snow whereas the wind-blown open fields offered easier access to food. Historically the fate of our northern turkeys has hung on the severity of our winters, which is why they are not found further north than the level of the Upper Peninsula and extreme southern Ontario.  My presence wasn’t helping this particular flock either, so I elected to scoot back to the vehicle and leave them be.

  Further down the road, I was admiring the stump fences that mark the fields in this area.  Danish farmers who worked these grounds in the early 1900’s found the place littered with the stumps of white pines cut during the great pine era.  What once was a mighty forest had been clear cut in the late 1800’s. All the land had left to offer was fertile ground for those willing to work it for crops. In the process of plowing the ground, the hardy immigrant farmers pulled up the stumps one by one and laid them up as fence rows which survive to this day. This deforestation from pine lumbering was one of the reasons that wild turkeys disappeared from Michigan in the first place. 

  The resurgence of the wild turkey is one of the great conservation stories of our time. Their return has occurred only within the last few decades – orchestrated by the hard work of game agencies and conservation groups. It wasn’t that long ago that the only wild turkey to be seen in these parts was to be found in a bottle of Wild Turkey Bourbon.

  I passed a hand-made sign out in front of one of those old Danish farms as I entered onto the main road.  I don’t know whether an old Dane lived there anymore, but the message in his yard was one that cut across cultural barriers.  “Repent” it said.  In the light of what we’ve just talked about I can see a dual message of both personal salvation and making good on past ecological wrongs.

February 7, 2008

Mousies Ain’t Mice

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:46 pm

  Most ice fishing bait critters are marketed with simple easily pronounceable names.  I believe this a marketing necessity brought about by tight-mouthed frozen fishermen attempting to express themselves when their lips are iced up. Burrowing Mayfly nymphs are simply called “wigglers” and Wax Moth larvae are dubbed “wax worms.”  In this, the second in my series of bait shop entomology articles, I’d like to address the most misleadingly named ice fishing bait of all time – the “Mousie.” 

In short, Mousies ain’t mice and they ain’t cute.  They are the aquatic larvae of a relatively nice looking fly called the Drone fly (see adult here).  A fly larvae, as you may or may not know, is generally called a maggot.  It so happens that the maggot of this particular fly is commonly called the Rat-tailed Maggot. Now there’s a name to inspire all kinds of nice thoughts.  The necessity of calling them Mousies should become immediately obvious in polite society.  For instance, my wife will allow me to put a container of Mousies in the refrigerator next to the salad dressing, but would have forbidden a container of Rat-tailed Maggots.  Pre-schoolers love looking at Mousies but their parents will forbid them to look at Rat-tailed Maggots. Of course, I should mention that ice fisherfolk also call them Mousies because they do resemble a mouse in a somewhat horribly skewed way. Take a look at this view and decide for yourself before further reading.

  Rat-tailed Maggots are not cuddly looking things.  Basically a fleshy white cylinder with a needle sticking out of its butt, there is little to recommend this maggot for public viewing. I guess you could say it has a body for radio.  There is no actual face to present to the microphone, but the narrow end of the thing is technically the head end. There are seven sets of leg-like bumps arranged on the body that almost qualify as such, but the most obvious feature is the needle end – the tail of this little naked semi translucent pulsating mouse. It is this wonderful little tail that demands a closer look.

 

  When not residing in a bed of septic woodchips (this is how they are packaged at the bait shop) Rat-tails live in sewage.  O.K., let’s not get all shocked here – they are filthy little fly maggots after all. They find comfort in contaminated water, farm manure run-off, and other low oxygen environs that are commonly defined as maggot-gagging places.  The only way to survive in this nutrient rich swill is to use a snorkel to insure a constant supply of clean air (otherwise they too would gag).  The so-called “tail” is a telescoping breathing tube used for just such a purpose. Although the critter may only be 20 mm long, its snorkel can extend out nearly 40 mm thanks to a hollow three segmented setup that comes out like the leg on a camera tripod.  Here’s a great view of a Mousie using the full extent of its tube to reach the water surface.

 

  I feel it is necessary to mention that technically the Mousie breathes through its hind end.  What else would you expect from a creature sometimes called a Filth Fly by non-fishermen? 

  Sewage life is relatively easy. There are no real competitors for the rich supply of food. The maggot merely strains the watery poo through finely spaced bristles located around the mouth. Particles trapped in the sieve system are taken into the digestive tract and eventually turned into more diluted poo at the other end. In answer to the occasional need to move about, those stubby leglets are set into rhythmic motion. I clocked one of these guys (perhaps it was a gal) achieving the breakneck speed of 2 inches per minute.  At this rate, I calculated that it would take him/her/it approximately 66 days to go a one mile (a worthless fact, perhaps, but fascinating none-the-less).  You and I could certainly move faster than that if we found ourselves immersed in sewage – even if we had a snorkel sticking out of pants!

  

  A Mousie has little need to move any great distance.  Once they have completed their development, they need only to crawl up out of the water to find a place to pupate (usually only a few feet away). Alas, our bait Mousies will never have the opportunity to turn into adult Drone Flies.  They are destined to enter the aquatic food chain through the mouth of a fish.  It is of small comfort to note that these maggots have extremely tough skin – a trait that makes them well suited to bait life.

 

 Adult Rat-tailed Maggots relinquish their maggoty ways and devote themselves to a life of nectaring at flowers.  They are frequently called Flower flies because of this habit. I’ll have to introduce you to one of these attractive little creatures sometime, but we’ll have to leave this story in the sludge for now.

 

  Ogden Nash once quipped that “God in his wisdom created the Fly, and then forgot to tell us why.”  In the case of the Mousie fly larvae, I believe the answer is that somebody has got to eat that stuff.

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