Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 29, 2008

Brrrrr Birds

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:58 pm

  We Michiganders have honed a fine ability to approach each season with blissful ignorance. I believe that our seasonal short-term memory is a form of mental adaptation – allowing us to stay sane through long winters. Take the last two early spring snowstorms, for example. “Can you believe this crap so late in the season?” you’d hear someone comment to no one in particular as you waited in the checkout line at Meijer’s. “Pretty weird stuff,” someone else would pipe in, “I can’t remember the last time this happened.”

  I’m as guilty as anyone else in this matter. I have engaged in those very same conversations, even though I know full well that post-equinox snows are not that unusual.  We are continually dreaming that each semi-warm day will usher in the “real” season while engaging in denial over the painful reality that this is what the season looks like. When pressed on the point, older folks will recall snowfalls occurring well into the month of April. Dead people would remember snows much later than that.

  Still, yesterday morning after an overnight three incher, I shook my head in disbelief at the sight of two dozen riding lawn mowers blanketed with a layer of whiteness out in front of Lowes.  They were neatly aligned, but clustered as if huddled together to fend off the frozen insult. To me, such a sight appeared un-natural – almost as strange as watching children hunt for Easter Eggs last weekend in the foot high snow drifts.  In my world, grass cutting implements and plastic eggs shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath with snow.  My view is, of course, that of denial.

  With this short-term mindset in full gear, I engaged in a similar bit of “un-natural” association thinking in terms of local birdlife. Many spring migrants have returned while other locals are already into breeding mode. Most of these critters are used to coping with snow and bouts of cold weather.  For the most part they are hardy beasts that are only taken aback for a brief time before continuing life as usual. Still, many look odd when pictured in the vicinity if snow – like watching a guy in a bathing suit walking though a wintry field. There are four brief examples I’d like to present to you (I have to make these brief due to the short-term memory thing).

 First of all, today I spotted the first Great Egret of the season and was able to snap a shot of it (see here).  Seeing this white bird framed against a snowy background is not something you see everyday.  Though he looks disgusted (egrets always look disgusted), the fact that he is draped in his finest breeding plumage indicates that he expects much greater things in the days ahead.  The long aiegrette plumes cascading off his back are ample proof that the snow has no effect on his plans, although the lack of other egrets is definately casting a cloud over the scene.

 Robins are probably the worst example to use here, because many overwinter as dried fruit eaters, but late snows always crimp their style.  As spring approaches, the birds return to their ground patrolling habits.  As a result, they are totally put out of place when deep snows fall.  It is as if they refuse to walk in the snow – period – and will wander like herds of cattle on wet sidewalks and roads.  Here is a set of multiple tracks from a few days ago showing how the birds were desperately seeking the melted snow spots immediately adjacent to this brick building. They were literally hugging the wall to get sidewalk space. Later in the day, one red-breasted male was confidently pursuing his worm hunting over a small patch of open grass surrounded by whiteness (seen here cocking his head sideways to get a better view of his potential prey).  So, they got over it pretty quickly.

  On the early morning of the day-before-Easter storm, I spotted this gang of Killdeer looking miserable in the pre-dawn light (see here). Killdeers are strict ground hugging birds and, like the robins, are averse to walking in snow.  Oddly enough, this flock chose to weather that particular storm while standing on a patch of ice out in the middle of a cornfield.  Note that some of them were actually lying down and all were initially facing into the predominate wind direction. These killjoys chose the hardness of the smooth ice over the protective cover of a bush. Of course, I don’t know that they were actually miserable, but they must have been because we humans were miserable (and we are the most advanced beings on earth, right?).

  Perhaps the best example I can present of early birds and snow is that of the Great-Horned Owl. These flying tigers start to nest in late February and are faced with protecting their eggs from the snow every year – not just late snow years.  Here’s a fascinating set of shots taken by Bill Schomoker showing a Colorado owl enduring a snow cover last year.  In this shot (see here) she’s up to her eyeballs in a drift, but she was able to leave the nest later (see here) and leave her single egg exposed but apart from the snow.  Currently, most of our new owlets have hatched out and are in the ball of fuzz stage (like this one), so they too had to put up with the latest snow.

  Even though a snow-covered nesting owl may look as pathetic as a fleet of huddled mowers, remember that this is a natural thing.  If nature can “suck it in” then so can you. Now, if it snows again, then I may re-think this whole concept…

March 27, 2008

Yes, the Can Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:55 pm

 Even though I just addressed the subject of Canvasback Ducks only two weeks ago (March 8), I believe this is a waterfowl well worth revisiting. My reason for going back to back with Bullnecks is that I have a bird in hand this time (and you know what they say about a bird in the hand).  My specimen is a dead bird, unfortunately – one those unfortunate ducks that succumbed to a late winter/early spring bout of starvation that hit our wintering population. Hundreds of the birds were found dead from Lake St. Clair down to Lake Erie. All those that were recovered and analyzed proved to be suffering from malnourishment. Oddly enough this appears to be a natural phenomena and the overall effect on the whole population should prove to be minimal.

  I recovered this handsome specimen from the slushy frozen waters of Lake Erie a few days ago. It is a drake Canvasback that remained buoyed at the surface by its dense water-repellant covering of contour feathers.  The oily surface and dense downy layer combined to resist the effects of water and mass. This buoyancy served the bird well in life and delivered it neatly to the shore upon its death. It would be less than respectful not to spend a few minutes looking at this elegant fowl.

  The black breast and rump are cleanly kept apart by a much lighter mid section. From a distance Cans appear to be a simple combination of a cinnamon head on a stark black and white body (like these live birds). Close up, the white feathers exhibit complex gray linear patterns called vermiculations (literally “worm lines”).  Take a close look here and you can see the details of this intricate feathering décor.  Male ducks tend to exhibit much more of this line work than their feminine counterparts.

  One of the more interesting fallacies addressing the name of the Canvasback stems from a seemingly logical explanation that completely ignores the appearance of these back feathers. Back in the bad old days, when ducks were hunted for market, the birds were often shipped to the restaurants in canvas bags. According to those who should know better, each bag was stenciled with the words “send canvas back” to insure that the sacks were returned for re-use. Most of these bags were stuffed with Canvasbacks because they were the most desired species and so they naturally became known as, well, you guessed it.  The problem is, this is plain wrong. This popular game bird had long been known by hunters as the bird with a back that looked like bleached canvas.  It’s not that hard, son!

  Canvasbacks are diving ducks extraordinaire. Their large bluish feet are located well back on the body and are fully webbed (see here). Even the tiny hind toe is flattened to enhance the bird’s swimming ability. This flat toe, called a hallux, is a key characteristic of all members of the diving duck family such as the Scaups, Red heads, and Ring-neck Ducks.  When swimming underwater, the feet are held out to the side and employed with simultaneous strokes. Longer-than-average toes create a huge webbed paddle area for propulsion.

  No other diving duck has a beak quite like that of the Canvasback. In profile it is a ski slope running even with the slant of the forehead (see here). My friend John Audubon penned a suitable tribute to this beak in his “Birds of America.”  A snippet from his lengthy discussion states that “the dorsal line (is) at first straight and declinate, then slightly concave, direct for a short space near the tip where it is incurved, the ridge broad and concave at the base, narrow at the middle, enlarged and convex at the end.”  In other words, it is like a ski slope. It’s not that hard, John.  

  Lining the inside edges, just out of view, this marvelous beak is equipped with a series of comb like ridges called lamellae.  Take a gander…er, I mean a drake…at this view with the mouth partially open and you’ll see this feature exposed on the lower mandible. Fortunately John took the time to count these ridges and found there to be 50 on the upper mandible and 105 “inferior” and 105 “superior” ridges on the lower mandible. For his patience I am eternally grateful.  This gives me time to mention that the Canvasback also has a thick fleshy tongue that is 2 ½ inches long and furnished “with a series of bristly filaments.” 

  The tongue, in this case, is as important as the beak. Lamellae act like sieve plates that trap food as the tongue enlarges and squeezes out each mouthful of water. A primary plant eater like the Canvasback can rip up sections of water celery, push out the watery mouthful and retain only the vegetable goodness for swallowing. Yes, the Can can.

  I hope you’ll agree that time spent in the presence of this red-eyed beauty is time well spent. Perhaps I’ll leave you wanting to know more about this critter?  If so, please send me a cloth bag stuffed full of hundred dollar bills and be sure to mark it “Send Canvas Back.”

March 25, 2008

Up Chuck and Die

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 am

  I have seen approximately 6 woodchucks since the middle of the March, so there is little doubt that their major hibernation period is over.  Of those I spotted, at least three were alive, although one of those is flirting with the reaper.  My first live groundhog was spotted on St. Patty’s Day -at the top of the morning, don’t ‘ja know – but my very first chuck of the season was a road kill seen on March 15. 

  I’ve always thought it to be the ultimate tragedy when a newly awakened woodchuck bumbles out of its burrow, after a long tough winter, and is creamed by a car. Instead of tasting the sweet green of another successful season, it is relegated to eating pavement.  Somehow it just doesn’t seem fair. The hibernation process is a very difficult thing to go through and you’d think there would be a grace period upon its completion. I can only imagine that there is a little corner of heaven for such creatures – an endless field of newly sprouted garden plants in a land where there are no shotguns or cars. Of course I quickly get over this initial sympathetic period by the time April rolls around.

  One of the live animals I spotted was the doubtful looking creature I referred to earlier. It was alive, but looked worse for wear.  There wasn’t much “hog” left on this groundhog. Sunken sides enhanced the profile of the jutting hips and it wobbled as it walked. Such a creature might have welcomed a trip to the eternal garden plot, but alas there were no roads in the vicinity.  It was so totally engrossed in filling his face on greens that nothing disturbed him (see here and here). I finally got his attention enough for him to look up and display his reddish leg fur (see here) but the moment was short-lived.

  The chuck was out in the middle of a large grassy area and apparently not fearful of predators. Even in this compromised condition, however, it still found it prudent to freeze into a low position when a human couple walked by.  In a long grass situation this action would have concealed it well, but looked ridiculous when performed on short turf.  Oddly enough, the couple did not seem to spot it! After the “danger” passed, the woodchuck resumed grass chucking.

  Not all the chucks I saw were this emaciated. Most of the dead ones (aside from being dead) and the other two living examples looked pretty good. 

  All of this brings up the question as to what stimulates woodchucks to emerge in the spring.  By the way, it is a fascinating little quirk of the English language that causes a woodchuck to immerge in the fall and emerge in the spring. It is equally intriguing that while in hibernation they are hypothermic with a body temperature equal to the surrounding ground (we’ve talked about this before) and normothermic when active. The question is, then, what prompts the return to normothermia? The answer appears to be two-fold.

  First of all, there is evidence that a hibernating woodchuck arouses every now and then over the winter, so out of a 3 to 4 month season it may only be torpid for two months. The animals are subject to the cycles of their internal clocks and have been shown to arouse in the morning and return to deep sleep in the afternoon. All of this is regardless of the air temperature. The final, or so-called terminal, spring arousal occurs according to the dictums of this same biorhythmic clock. In which case, a special patch of brown fat, located between the shoulder blades, acts to jump start the process with a high energy boost.

  Once awake inside the den, the chucks do not break their fast, but instead wait for the next warm day in order to emerge. In other words, the chucks are up well before they actually come up at the beckoning of the sun. During this first period of wakefulness, the males generally patrol their territory and seek out willing females.  The gals, freshly awakened themselves, are not ready to mate yet, so the guys have to be satisfied with a simple “see ‘ya some time.”

  The next step is for the woodchucks to return to their dens to sleep it off for a few days or weeks. Their second coming is a no nonsense affair. Assuming the creek don’t rise and there are no roads in the way, the boy chucks and the girl chucks meet for a brief fling and spring becomes official.

March 23, 2008

Mergansers in the Hood

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:23 pm

  Hooded mergansers engage in up to 10 different distinct motions when performing their courtship dance, but I’d like to focus only their flashiest moves for now. These striking little fish ducks are migrating through at the present time and, like many of their fellow waterfowl travelers, they stop off to “rest” in our local waters.  Dressed in their finest and headed toward the main dance floor, the birds practice their steps along the way. Their performances are short but memorable.

  “Hoodies” are the smallest of the three species of mergansers that pass through the Great Lakes country.  They have the long serrated bill that is the mark of this peculiar trio of fish eating ducks also known as sawbills.  These birds dive and pursue their prey underwater and are specially adapted for precise water vision (able to change the refractive qualities of their eyes to see through the liquid element).  All these wonderful adaptive features aside, the entertainment qualities of this merganser are based solely on look’n good.

  It is the hood, or the crest, that is the best way to separate a male Hooded Merganser from the other types (take a look).  The white spot on the crest stands out like a beacon and serves to highlight the glowing yellow eyes and sharp black & white back feathering. The females (see here) are restricted to a duller palette of colors but have a nice cinnamon crest of their own.  

  My attention was drawn to a cluster of these birds as I passed an open patch of water framed by a wall of dead cat-tails. From a distance the only thing I could see was a set of 5 or 6 white dots milling about.  These dots turned out to be the raised crests of so many males trying to impress a single female in the center of the watery dance floor. A regular burst of guttural croaking cut through the airspace as the males vocalized their intentions.

  Each display sequence started with a male bird raising his hood as far as he could – beyond vertical and leaning forward like a punker’s Mohawk. As he jockeyed for position alongside the female he would inflate his throat and begin a series of three stiff head pumps. Like the rising action of car jack to each pull of the lever, the bird brings its chest higher out of the water with each forward pump. After the third, and hardest pump, the head is jerked back between the shoulders to the point where the beak is pointing straight up (here’s a drawing of one in the act of throwing his head back). To finish off this dramatic final move the bird lets out a rolling frog-like “Crooooooo” as the head is returned to its normal orientation and the chest is lowered back into the water.

  All this makes for a pretty impressive individual courtship display, but when several males are performing the same ritual at the same time the effect is downright theatrical. Many times two competing birds will mirror each other in choreographed sympathy. The dancing fervor would rise to a boiling pitch and then suddenly cease as the dance troupe would swim further down the cat-tail edge.

  The female is not a passive bystander in this dance.  She eventually shows her interest by responding with a similar set of spastic head pumps.  I did see the female in this bunch perform in the direction of one of the males, but she quickly cut off her reaction and swam away.

  At any rate, the dancing and crooning will continue throughout the remainder of the northward migration until the nesting location is reached – at which point the gals will have to make up their minds. Because all the males appeared to act with equal proficiency, I’m not sure how the female will ultimately make her final choice. Perhaps she’ll pick the one that is the most persistent, or that raises his crest the highest, or croons with the most amphibianistic qualities. It is also distinctly possible that the choice will be completely arbitrary. In this final matter, there is direct parallel with the human world.


March 20, 2008

Staring at the Stink Eye

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:04 pm

  In the interest of science, I did something that sane folk rarely do.  I picked up a Striped Skunk by the tail and looked it right in the “other eye” – you know, the stink eye.  There is an old truism that a skunk can’t spray you when it’s being held upside down by the tail. In my case, I found this to be very true.  The animal didn’t employ its chemical arsenal even though it was being held at arms length. In fact, it couldn’t spray me, just like the old wise tale says, because of the position it was in.  Here’s a picture of that very skunk in the position it was in just before I lifted it – lying still and cold at the side of the road. Yes, it was dead.

  When I first came upon the unfortunate beast it was the proverbial “dead skunk in the middle of the road.”  There was little traffic, so I stopped to take a closer look. The nice thing about this sacrificial critter was that it was in pretty good shape and, most importantly, it hadn’t “gone off” when the hit and run had occurred.  In other words it was approachable and therefore I approached it and dragged it off to the side of the road.

    My skunk displayed some interesting traits and I wanted to make it “your” skunk by showing you a few features.  For instance, you will note that this animal was mostly black (see here). The back of his head was white as was the inner fur on the tail, but the rest was as black as coal. Even though the typical pattern of a Striped Skunk is to have a bi-furcated white stripe running down its back and tail, no two individuals are alike.  The species can vary from all black to nearly all white and every black & white combination in-between.

  Skunks are omnivores that eat a wide variety of plant and animal foods. They especially like to dig for grubs and are formidably equipped for the task with long front claws (see here). Their hind feet are bear-like and they walk flat-footed just like us humans (see here). I’ll bet you probably didn’t realize that skunks had such soft pink soles and I’ll equally bet you probably don’t care.  Well, it’s not that you don’t care is more likely that you just never thought about it.  When thinking of skunks, it is the stink we predominately think about. After all, their scientific name Mephitis means “bad odor” in Latin- not pink-padded beast.

 The odor of skunk spray in the air is a sure sign that spring itself is breathing down our nostrils. Road kill animals litter the highways this time of year as the animals begin to disperse over the landscape. This is their mating season and they are pounding the pavement seeking other bi-colored soul mates. Along the way they may be prompted to use their chemical self defense system, although they prefer not to.  Whether their spray is induced by a Firestone or a Fox, their unique prickly musk scent travels through the moist air for well over a mile.  One reference even states that this scent can be detected up to 20 miles away, although I’m not sure how they deduced that given that there are bound to be a thousand squished skunks stink’n up the space over the course of that distance.

  I picked up my/your skunk in order to provide you with this rare unscented view of the business end of the animal. Take a look (at this view) under the tail and you’ll see a prominent oval pink area that encompasses the anus and the spray nozzles.  Against that black furry background it stands out like a sore thumb.  Upon closer inspection you should be able to see a pair of structures called anal nipples. I realize that this may be an uncomfortable combination of words for you to say, but please realize that these are the spigots that control the chemical spray.

  When threatened, skunks will run away if at all possible. They are very peaceful little creatures at heart. If flight isn’t an option, they’ll stamp the ground with their feet in order to provide a warning shot over the bow, so to speak.  Only as a last resort will they let loose with the big one. At this point they turn about, raise their tail and put the pucker on the two everted rear nipples. This squeezes out a misty stream that can go as far as 15 feet in the direction of the perceived attacker. Each gland holds about a tablespoon of the yellowish musk (chemically called butylmercaptan). Each is capable of releasing 5 or 6 jets of smelly goodness if necessary – although multiple shots are rarely necessary. 

  Contact with the pungent chemical causes a temporary loss of vision along with a burning sensation in the victim. Normally this effect lasts only long enough for the offended skunk to make its getaway, but occasionally it can have harsher side effects. Great Horned Owls are skunk killing specialists that rely on stealth and a quick murderous attack.  Sometimes an owl miscalculates and ends up at the receiving end of a direct blast that grounds it for days – during which time the bird weakens from hunger and eventually dies.

  I have to say that even an “un-exploded” skunk is a smelly thing.  This road kill skunk, though intact, was permeated with “eau du pole cat.” My fingers and even the camera smelled of skunk for several days after my non-confrontational encounter.  I would even venture to say that the pictures stink as well. Go ahead, smell them.

  By the way, live skunks can spray you even if they are being held by the tail.

March 17, 2008

Who You Look’n At, Eh?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:04 pm

  To say that I was helping Art & Tom Carpenter band owls the other night would be stretching the truth.  I was present, but my role was that of an observer more than a participant. I’ve known the father-son team for decades and have been in the position to grant them permission to conduct their work at Lake Erie Metropark for the last fourteen years. During all that time, I never had the opportunity to get in their way until this past Saturday night.  

  The boys were set up in the museum yard to intercept the potential spring flight of Northern Saw Whet Owls. These diminutive owls engage in a seasonal winter migration that takes them from their northern forest range down to large sections of the lower 48.  Saw Whets pass through S.E. Michigan during the autumn and spring rush and often stick around during the colder “r” months.  They overwinter only as far south as they have to – which means they’ll stay as long as there is a healthy population of mice around.

 To catch a unique owl, such as a Saw Whet, you need to lure them into nets using a recorded love call. You need to do all this, of course, at night. The birds sit tight under cover during the day and are near impossible to see, so you can’t ‘nique up on ‘em. But when evening comes, these tiny predators prowl the darkness and will come to you if given the proper incentive.

  The Carpenters provide this incentive via a recorded breeding call broadcast over a speaker. A Saw Whet emits a flute-like “hoop hoop hoop” when in the mood. The authors of the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas (Saw Whets do nest in the northern and western parts of the state) categorize the love note of this owl as “a relentless but short-lived call.” It is relentless in that once the calling begins, it is sent out at the rate of 1.5 notes per second.  It is short-lived because these owls only call during the brief late winter/spring season and stay mum the rest of the year – apparently using up their annual hoot quota.

  When I arrived about 8:00 pm, the guys were all set for the long haul. When banding owls you never know how late the night will go. Art, the father, brought a Lincoln biography to read along with a portable T.V. (“That’s for Tom” he said). Tom brought along his lap top to finish up on some work from his daytime job as well as some munchies (“Those are for dad,” was his inference). Inside the building, a table was laid out with a digital scale, ruler, record book, a red tackle box of banding supplies, an ancient black light, and several empty pastry tubes and grape juice concentrate cans (“Those are for the birds”). 

  A line led from the tape recorder and outside through a slightly opened window.  This line trailed across the museum yard about 100 feet to a speaker mounted head high on a hawthorn at the scrub edge. Two thirty-foot mist nets were suspended badminton style to form an “L” around the speaker.  Any bird attempting to fly toward the sound would find itself ensnared in the net. It was already pitch black by the time I was able to tour the set-up and nearly ended up capturing myself in the net after tripping over the speaker cord.

  We returned to the building, turned on the “relentless” Saw Whet tape and cooled our heels.  Art put a Cup ‘o Soup into the microwave as Tom made the obligatory comment “well, I hope we get some tonight.  The other sites are catching ‘em like crazy.” Usually, when such a statement is made it nearly guarantees that the banding gods will not favor our location, so we quickly switched to politics.  After about twenty minutes it was time to check the nets and we headed into the blackness – actually I headed into the blackness, Tom cut through it with a head lamp. “Look out for that speaker cord,” he mentioned for some reason as we walked out.

  Upon approaching the net, Tom’s headlamp picked up a suspended shape hanging upside down in mesh. By golly, it was Saw Whet sure enough – living proof that the banding gods have turned a deaf ear. It normally takes only takes a minute to carefully untangle a captured bird, but my camera flashes kept Tom so thoroughly blinded that it took him nearly two minutes using his sense of touch. “It’s already got a band,” he said as his eyes re-adjusted to the night.  The owl, after a brief bout of beak popping (a defensive act in which she rapidly snaps here beak open and shut), settled down and calmly gazed back at her captor.

  The nocturnal prisoner was shoved head first into a pastry tube in order to hold it safe for the brief trip back to the building.  “Look out for that cord,” Tom repeated with Saw Whet relentlessness as we returned.

  Once inside, the duo proceeded to record data on the owl. The first task was to read the existing band. Normally a No. 4 aluminum band would be applied to the leg, but since it was already banded, there was no need.  Unfortunately the numbers were so tiny that they were near impossible to read – especially for three potential A.A.R.P. members. I finally made myself useful by grabbing a lens and reading off the sequence as Art recorded.  The numbers were: 0924-66958. 

  Next step was the weigh-in.  The total weight, with the tube, was 121 grams.  Since the tube weighed 31 grams that meant the bird tipped the scales at 90 grams.  A tail length measure (71 mm) and a wing measure (141 mm) followed.  All of these numbers were entered into the tally book under NSWO (short for Northern Saw Whet Owl).  In order to fill the last column, that indicating age class, the bird had to be taken out of the tube for examination. It amused me that a Pillsbury “Frosty the Snowman Cookie” tube was the official owl holder during this entire scientific endeavor.

  Under the glare of the black light, the right wing was unfurled to examine the feathering. Newer feathers would glow under the purplish light. This bird proved to have an even set of non-glowing old feathers which earned it an “SY” designation in the book (which means second year). After ten minutes of aging, measuring, and blinding it with camera flashes it was time to release the bird. Tom walked the dazzled owl out the front door and across the large dark parking lot. He took it far away from the enticing siren call of the recorder and the fowler’s net. It took a minute or two, but the owl finally realized it was free and vanished into the night smelling slightly of pastry.

  “You know,” Tom said upon his return, “there’s something familiar about that bird. I think we got that one last year.”  He scuffled over to the tattered record book and flipped back to a page labeled “returns.”  His hunch was correct.  There on the second line was No. 0924-66958. It was captured on Nov. 10, 2007 right here in the museum yard.  It was an “HY” (Hatching Year) category bird then and, amazingly enough, weighted exactly the same.  This was apparently an overwintering bird that decided to stay in the park.

  “If I remember right,” Tom went on to say,” this one was originally banded by somebody up near the northern border of Ontario and Quebec.”  I do believe he remembered right especially given the fact that he had just remembered a particular bird based solely on its measurements!  This over-winterer was a Canadian, eh. – a Quebecquois who “hoops” with a French accent.

  We checked the net once more but found it empty, so I hung around for another half hour before heading home. “We’ll stick around for a while yet” said Art and the pair thanked me for getting in their way so effectively. The next morning I received an e-mail from Tom saying that they ended up staying until midnight and caught “2 more Saw Whets and a Gray Phase Screech Owl. None had bands. We’ll be back next week.” You know, I think owl’ll be back as well.

March 15, 2008

Words Worthy of a Wahoo

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:10 pm

 In my rather shallow box of witticisms, I have one filed away for use in any situation involving a Hackberry Tree or a Burning Bush. These two plants have ridges on their branches or trunks which offer a distinctive species identifying mark.  The ridges are made up of thin layers of corky material that stand out from the smooth bark.  In the textbooks these features are logically called “corky ridges.”  I’ll occasionally point out this official designation on a public nature walk and follow it up with a pseudo reflective comment like: “Corky Ridges? I think he was a couple of years behind me in high school. Red-haired kid if I recall.”

  The usual return reaction is similar to the one you are probably expressing at this moment. I’ll admit, it’s not that funny but it gives me deep personal satisfaction.  I actually knew someone named Corky once, but he was much older than me and not a member of the Ridges family.

  I wouldn’t have brought this up unless there was a good reason for doing so.  I recently came across a Burning Bush – one of those corky ridge plants – and would like to introduce it to you.  When Moses came upon one of these many years ago, he noted that the shrub was not consumed by the flames that engulfed it. His plant was fully leaved at the time, but mine was bereft of foliage due to the season and therefore not on fire. In the leafless state the characteristic ridges show up plainly (see here).

  The common name, as you might have figured out, stems from that biblical incident. When the autumn leaves of this shrub are ablaze in vibrant crimson, the plant indeed looks to be on fire – a cool fire at that.  As is usually the case, there are several names for this common Northeastern plant. Wahoo is another commonly used name as is the scientific appellation of Euonymus (which means “good name” in Greek).

  Even though I found this particular bush in the “wild,” it is a plant you can easily see in your neighborhood because they are frequently used for landscape plantings. But, there is a problem.  The plant I found wasn’t a native Wahoo, it was a Winged Wahoo.  This is why the thing looked so corky. The winged version hails from N.E. Asia and has four twig ridges that radiate out nearly ¼ inch from the green stems.  The native plant is much more conservative in its ridgiosity. 

  I did get a chuckle from a quote originating from a Nature Conservancy web site which was headed “Weed Alert.”  In reference to the alien Winged Wahoo, it said that “it had been observed escaping from cultivation in the northeast and Midwest.”  I wonder if any videos were made to record this behavior.  Perhaps there is a You Tube short that shows a Wahoo jumping a nursery fence and fleeing across an open field.  The one I cornered was obviously passing itself off as a local, so this is apparently how they survive while on the lamb.   Both members of the good fella clan are widely planted, however, so you are apt to come across either one in either place.  Both are called Burning Bush and both are called Wahoos, so we’ll leave that discussion point alone.

  If this piece were strictly on Wahoos, I would quickly run out of things to say about now.  They are low growing (15-20 ft. high), multi-stemmed shrubs with opposite branching. They bear dangling red fruit that looks like a little heart popping out of a bag and that’s about it. Sure there are some medicinal uses, but I found that a brief exploration of the name to be therapeutic in its own right.

  The original name of Wahoo is supposed to stem (pun intended) from a Dakota Indian name for the plant.  In their tongue this meant “Arrow wood” and is an indication that the straight branches were used for that purpose. The fact that there is another unrelated local plant commonly called the Arrow Wood only slightly confuses the matter.  The Wahoo name has planted itself deep in human culture (yes, that was another pun).  There is an oceanic fish that goes by the same name, as well as a board game, the Cleveland Indians mascot chief, and the name of a World War II submarine captained by “Mush” Morton.

  Wahoo is the unofficial nickname applied to the athletes of the University of West Virginia, although I’m not sure which side employs it during games.  In 1895, the team rallying call of the Ohio State Football Team was “Wahoo, Wahoo. I yell for OSU.”  Now if that isn’t an obscure fact, nothing is.  It would be fitting to end this thing with one more Wahoo word. The dictionary defines it as a “meaningless yell” – perhaps an apt description of this entire essay.

March 13, 2008

Who’s That Knock’n?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:28 pm

I know why there are little pieces of bark on the snow.  The maples in my yard are beginning to swell up with March sap, but the barkage on the ground beneath them isn’t due to this seasonal buffing up. It’s a woodpecker thing. I know this because I watched the antics of two woodpecker species in my yard and noted that the only evidence of their passing was this layer of bark flakes on the snow cover.  The unintentional educators in this case were a Downy and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

  Up in the branches of even the healthiest of trees there are always dead branches and hidden rot spots which are host to burrowing insects (take a look through these branches, for instance). Woodpeckers are exquisitely made to exploit these nutrition hot spots. They peel away bark with abandon in order to expose tunnels in the dead wood underneath. That they are messy feeders is a natural part of their profession.

  I noticed the Red-bellied bird first, because it is the larger of the two and the one that happened to be right in front of me.  It’s loud “churr churr” call also called attention to itself. These are striking birds (pun mildly intended) with dramatically black & white barred backs and a dashing (pun) stroke of bright red on the back of their heads. The males have a red hood all the way to the base of the beak while the females only have red up to the top of the head.  My bird was a male.

  The second bird was a male Downy Woodpecker – the smallest of its kind in North America.  These diminutive little woodies are also decked out in contrasting black & white stripes, but allow the pattern to possess their entire body (except their chests). This male bird had a red spot on the back of its head. The girl birds lack this extra piece of body ornament.

  Both of these wood birds were actively feeding in the upper branches and performing their search and seizure mode of feeding.  The Red-bellied concentrated on the larger limbs while the little guy focused on the smaller upper branches.  Bark was filtering down through the twigs, although I can’t say for sure which pieces were the result of Red-bellied labor or Downy diligence.  Regardless, they were both unsuccessful and moved on after only a few minutes.

  All of this, of course, leads me to a few thoughts on woodpecker biology and etymology (how they go about their calling and what we call them).  The chisel-like woodpecker bill is a natural for removing wood as is their re-enforced spongy skull for tolerating the mind crushing blows, but we give little thought to their incredible tongues. Most species, including my two yard birds, have extremely long non-muscular tongues which enable them to probe into insect tunnels (our tongues are muscular hunks of flesh rooted at the back of our throats).  The tongue structure is so long that it actually curls around the back of the skull and originates at the nostrils. An extremely thin Y-shaped bone called the hyoid accounts for most of this length, with the actual tongue making up only the tip. 

  Oddly enough, there is a difference in the feeding behavior between the males and females of these species.  The Downy females tend to feed lower down on the tree than her male counterparts. The male Red-bellied actually has a longer bill and a wider tongue than the female. No one is quite sure why this is, but the result keeps the sexes separated and insures equal use of the available food. There might be some life lesson hidden here for our human use of the refrigerator, but I’ve yet to discern what that might be.

  While the Downy is aptly named – it is a fluffy little thing – the Red-bellied is a supreme example of a poorly named animal.  We can blame this man (the one pictured here) for that. This is Carl Von Linne the incredibly gifted 18th century scientist who devised our current method of scientifically naming things.  He’s done good life work, but dropped the ball on this one. The Red-bellied Woodpecker really doesn’t have a red belly at all.  Sure, if you look at it just right and have good light you’ll see that it does have a rosy tint to its belly, but really. Is that the most distinctive thing on this bird?

  The only thing I can think of is that Carl’s wife ate all the available food in the refrigerator on that fateful naming day in 1758, so he was out of his mind with hunger. If only the Linne family had worked out the woodpecker system of food resource use, things might have been different. Since I don’t even know if there was a Mrs. Linne, I certainly could be barking up the wrong tree on this one.

  Should you do some research, however, and find that there was a “Mrs.” and that her portrait depicts her as a portly woman, then I rest my case.

March 10, 2008

A Duck of Goodwill

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:01 pm

  I am soft believer that nothing happens by chance. Please note that I am not firm in this belief, but a solid non-committalist that certain things can happen contrary to mere randomness. Take, for instance, yesterday afternoon when my camera went on the fritz after taking one lousy picture.  Well, O.K., my batteries went dead in spite of the fact I checked them before heading out.  No problem, I bought some new AA’s and was ready to continue. In the process of putting the new batteries in, a tiny little piece of plastic fell out of the battery cover door onto the car floor.  I’d forgotten about that little broken piece – without it, the camera won’t turn on no matter how factory fresh the batteries are. Remarkably, I found the errant keystone fragment next to the accelerator pedal and continued the process. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember how the miracle piece fit back in. I tried it every conceivable (and a few in-conceivable) ways until finally admitting defeat and heading home. I was unable to shoot the cannons with my Cannon!

  The thing is- I was on a deadline.  The magazine editor wanted some crisp high-resolution pics of a cannon monument to accompany an up-coming article. She had to have them NOW.  My high res. camera was on the fritz NOW and I …never mind.  I had one crummy high resolution, but poorly lit, cloudy photo and that would have to do.  I would send it in, they would use it, and I’d have to stare at it the rest of my life.

  Just after resolving to forget the whole thing, the sun burst out and it became a beautiful sunny afternoon.  The crisp sunshine streaming through the window mocked me.  I snatched up the camera and that dog-goned fractured piece of cheap technology and resumed my attempts.  Suddenly, (by this I mean 15 minutes of frustrated manipulating) the piece slipped into place and stayed there. I closed the battery cover and the camera turned on. I was in business. There was still time to make the journey back to the cannons, so I went.

  An hour later, I had taken a whole host of high resolution cannon shots and was re-tracing my homeward route. As I crossed over the Swan Creek Bridge, just before St. Charles Church, I noticed that the creek was frozen solid and that a lone duck was sitting out on the ice.   It was a drake Redhead. The fowl was resting with its head tucked back between its shoulders. Thinking that perhaps it was frozen into the newly formed ice, I curled around into the church parking lot and inched my way along the shoreline up to the bird’s position.

  I admit that I was starting to think that maybe I was meant to see this bird – either to save it or to get a really good picture of it, or something.  I wouldn’t have seen it had I been successful on my earlier trip. As fate would have it (or was it?) the duck stayed firmly in place as I approached over the snow bank.  I adjusted the lens, peeped over the rise, took a blurry shot, and fumbled with the viewfinder while the bird erected its head to full attention.  It shifted around and immediately displayed that it was not frozen into place.  I had one more chance so I took the shot.

  No sooner had the artificial shutter sound completed its tone than the Redhead rose to his feet, skittered over the ice a few yards, and launched into the air. It headed directly east toward the creek mouth and Lake Erie – leaving a few piles of droppings to mark its former position.

  Only upon looking at my resulting picture did I whoop with joy.  I got it! Finally, I have a good picture of a duck to offer you, dear reader.  My previous attempts have been of less than stellar quality.  The Redheaded Duck of Happiness erased all traces of the “plastic incident.” Here’s the picture.  Nice eh? 

  Redheads are medium sized diving ducks on the order of canvasbacks, bluebills and the like. They don’t show up in our area in the huge numbers typical of those other species, but they are always mixed in with their fellow divers. It was unusual that this particular bird chose a solitary roosting spot on the creek ice. It may have been out of sorts, but certainly mustered enough energy to make its hasty escape. Whatever the reason, he waited there for some time until I came along to disturb him.

  This male exhibited the stunningly bright nutmeg-red head that gives these ducks their common name. The intense gaze of the orange eye fully displays a certain indignant sense of at being flushed. This is a bird in full breeding plumage that’ll soon be impressing the chicks out there in the prairie pothole country with his dashing good looks.

  There is one more twist of life affirming irony in this situation. Aside from the cannon monument article, I am also currently working on a piece about an old time decoy carver by the name of Fred Plichta.  One of the nicest examples I have of his work is a 1930 carving of a perky Redhead drake. I’ve been going over it for the last few days in hopes that it would speak to me about the man and his time.

  Here’s a picture of the decoy taken with that same wonderfully flawed camera that occupied so much of my day yesterday. I guess it would be a stretch to say that the spirit of that wooden bird came to life for me out there on Swan Creek, but I’m here to stretch that truth.  The real bird reminded me that they are the vital life force behind the fake ones. The duck came first, then the man, then the decoy (the editor and the cannon monument came somewhere in the middle of that sequence).

March 8, 2008

Ducks in a Row

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:21 pm

 When ducks of a feather gather together, it is certainly a sight to behold.  Whether the gathering is a gaggle of geese, a bolt of canvasbacks, or a quack of mallards the overall effect is a treat for the eyes and ears.  I say this because of the winter swarms of waterfowl that are presently collecting about the immediate area.  They are spilling out from the waters of Lake Erie onto the shoreline ice and adjacent corn fields.

  The big waters of the Detroit River and Lac Erie du Chat (that’s the early name of Lake Erie, by the way) are teeming with rafts of Canvasbacks (see here).  It has been stated that nearly 10% of the North American population of these diving ducks winter in our regional waters – a figure I can neither affirm nor deny, but find impressive. This view was taken just off the eastern side of Grosse Ile, the nine mile island that is fetched up smack in the middle of the lower river. The birds were part of a flock of a thousand actively feeding around the edge of the ice shelf not twenty feet from shore.

  Cans, as they are affectionately known by those unwilling or unable to pronounce multi-syllabic words, are chunky medium-sized ducks with impressive royal snoots. Their black beaks are large and sloping like a gentle ski hill that continues the angle of the forehead all the way to the tip. These birds are mostly males with red eyes, deep chestnut-colored heads, black breast and rump, and white midbody. Often called “Bullnecks” by those who refuse to relegate such a magnificent little beast to a one syllable name, male Canvasbacks indeed appear to have a robust neck when viewed head on. A single female bird, identifiable by her dingier white midbody and brownish dark parts, was resting on the ice (see here near the center) with her head tucked back coyly between her shoulders. For the time I watched them, the “guys” were going at it in the celery beds below.

  As divers, they propelled themselves under the surface with a quick porpoise move and slipped into the current.  I assume that after a few seconds, they would return to the surface slurping a water celery leaf noodle or crunching a zebra mussel. I say assume, because it was impossible to track the motion of any one bird due to the boiling activity of the flock. There was always one diving and one returning, one swimming and one preening at any given time. A few were unsurely attempting to walk over the ice on ill balanced feet. All of this activity was done in silence on the fowl’s part.  The water was continually squishing and splashing like agitated bathwater, but the ducks were mum.

  In stark contrast to this silent aggregation, or “group” if you are syllabically challenged, a north Monroe County corn field was the scene of a cacophonous gathering (see here) a few days later. Here hundreds of Mallard Ducks and Canada Geese were grain-gathering far from the waterfront. These birds were talking all the time. The Canadas were, of course, honking in mock alarm, but not at my presence. I don’t like these critters very much and try not to call attention to them, but I felt obligated to pass on this particular scene because of the swan in the center.  To say that the Tundra Swan stood out like a sore thumb in such company would be an understatement. These birds (which I do like a whole lot) are foragers in their own right who frequent our grain fields in late winter and spend the nights out on the open water.  This swan didn’t say or do much. I imagine he felt somewhat intimidated by the noisy hordes about him. Perhaps he was wondering where all of “his kind” were – like a person discovering that he was at the wrong party pensively standing by the peanut bowl planning a graceful exit.

  Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, a bunch’o mallards were standing in the rows (see here). This was another loud gang of corn feeders that quacked and chortled constantly. They were a nervous bunch which retreated back into the stubble with every passing car.  My stationary car really set them on edge and their necks were craning nearly to goose length to get a fix on my position.  You’ll note that there appears to be an equal mix of hens and drakes – the drakes being the green-headed ones. Their bright orange feet stand out like beacons against the snowy backdrop. Although my photo does not show them very well, there were a number of Black Ducks in the group as well.  Look for the really dark birds with red legs and you’ll see why they are called black ducks.

  This past week I went past the same cornfield and saw that the waterfowl party spot was now populated with a teeming school of blackbirds- mostly red-wing blackbirds. Their arrival signals the eminent loss of our temporary population of canvasbacks and tundra swans as they return to their spring breeding grounds.  The mallards will begin to pair up and distribute out. Unfortunately, the geese aren’t going anywhere.

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