Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 6, 2008

The Flying Whales of Mouillee

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:22 pm

  Based on the title of this piece you might not have guessed that I was going to talk about ducks again. I could have been more specific, I guess, but then I’d have to go into a long explanation detailing that the flying animal in question is actually a Northern Shoveler Duck and that the whale it represents is specifically a Humpback Whale. Although the “Humpbacks of Mouillee” may have sounded better, it would have been way too obscure even by my standards!

  I trust you’ll see that my connection is really not that obscure when you get to know the duck in question.  I am basing my nefarious linkage between a whale and a waterfowl on a small but significant shared detail – both are superbly adapted filter feeders. It would have been nice to present you with some detail photos of spotless Shoveler specimen to flesh out my premise, but the one that presented itself to me had very little flesh left. Apparently another duck lover had reached it first.

  While walking the dikes surrounding the Pte. Mouillee Marsh the other day, I was treated to a rich tapestry decorated by 15 colorful species of migrating waterfowl.  There were Redheads, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Canvasback, Bluebills, Black Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks and everything in-between. Within this explosion of feathered life there were even a few dozen Shovelers patrolling the shallows. When viewed through binoculars, Shovelers are especially handsome in their spring plumage (see here).

  Not far from the live birds, I came upon the remains of a dead Shoveler that had been placed upon the dike grass in a Picassoesque arrangement. It was picked cleanly to the bone with only the wings, head and feet left intact. Although I didn’t witness the predatory event, I am fairly certain this large bird was killed by a Peregrine Falcon.  The carcass bore all the signs of a fatal encounter with this magnificent falcon – referred to by the old-timers as the “Duck” Hawk because of its preference for waterfowl.  Peregrines pluck their prey before eating it and a pile of downy feathers nearby provided mute testimony of this (see here).

  I’ll spare you the whole dead duck body shot, but will present you with a view of one the bright orange feet (see here). These little appendages look very much like plastic in their precise perfection, but it is the beak that this discussion needs to focus upon. The Northern Shoveler has a perfectly honk’n bill which is perfectly adapted to its way of life. 

  Fortunately our falcon left this portion untouched, so I can present it in its entirety. Take a look at these views (see top angle here, bottom view here, and side view here). It is easy to see why this species is called a “shovel-er” because the beak resembles that implement in general appearance (another common name is Spoonbill). Look closer, however, and you’ll notice the comb-like fringe along the top and bottom edges that add a completely different layer to this look. These tooth-like structures are called lamellae (you might remember this from our earlier examination of a canvasback duck).

  The Lamellae on the Shoveler are developed to an extreme length due to their specialized method of feeding. I’ll need to open the mouth to carry this thing one step closer to the whale comparison.  Take a look here, and not only can you see how far the lamellae extend but you will also get a glimpse of their massive pink tongue (which fills the entire beak cavity). Allow me to treat you to another view – a drawing – of this incredible appendage (see here: top view on the right, bottom view on the left). The tongue is a complex organ that has two large frontal lobes, a row of toothy projections and a hairy fringe of its own.

  I’m betting that you’ve never looked at a Shoveler’s tongue before and that you probably won’t ever again, so please stick with me here. Northern Shovelers happen to be the most advanced filter feeders in the bird world next to flamingos. Humpback whales are among the mammal world’s most advanced filter feeders.  The two creatures have developed incredibly similar structures in order to perform this task: big tongues and filter plates.

  Whales propel themselves forward with open mouths and take in huge quantities of krill filled water while feeding.  They squeeze out the water with their massive tongues and retain the krill via the sieve plate action of the baleen plates suspended down from the edge of their maw. The krill are then delivered into Jonah’s lair and the beast is fed.

  Forging Shovelers barely open their bills when siphoning up their food-enriched mouthful of water. Like a piston, the tongue is pulled back and creates a vacuum which sucks water into the beak cavity.  A forward push of the tongue then squeezes out the water. Tiny invertebrates and plants are captured in the baleen-like lamellae and directed to the throat as a result of the next piston recoil of the tongue. Every surface of the tongue is made to come in complete contact with every inner surface of the bill. Now, tell me that’s not a cool thing.

  No, Shovelers don’t blow spray out of their heads or sing haunting melodies, but they are the most whale-like of our local fauna.

April 3, 2008

It’s a Smallmouth World, After-all

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:34 pm

By introducing the fictional Pistol Frog in my last entry on April 1, I acknowledge that I may have depleted my already small stock of reader trust. I was going to do an exposé on the secret service organization known as the S.S.C.P. (the Society to Save Clay Pigeons) but thought better of it after discovering that I knew nothing about them due to their secrecy.  I instead resorted to fabricating something of a more seasonal nature – untrue, but seasonal and semi-factual.

  There were more than a few kernels of truth in that April Fool piece, however, and I want to assure you that your eyeball time was not completely wasted.  Take the part about the real amphibians such as Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers and Salamanders that make their annual pilgrimage to vernal ponds in order to fulfill their reproductive needs.

  Although Chorus Frogs and Peepers are tiny and hard to see, they at least broadcast their presence in the form of loud verbal announcements throughout early spring.  This is how they find each other and make little frogs. It’s not too hard for us to verify their existence during this time. 

  Salamanders, on the other hand, can – and do – slink in and out without calling any attention to themselves.  I would say that they proceed with their love life completely under the radar except that is an overused statement (and one banned by the S.S.C.P., whoever they are).  So, I will simply say that salamanders are silent, stealthy, slimy and secretive. They quietly gather at the vernal pools, lay their eggs and slink back into leaf litter for the balance of the year. They do all this without stooping to the loud lewd behavior exhibited by their jumpy fellow amphibians.

  There are many salamander species in the Great Lakes area, but here in the lowlands of S.E. Michigan we are graced with the presence of a special type of salamander known as the Smallmouth.  This elusive creature reaches its northern range limit here in this corner of the state. Because of the limited local range it is considered a state threatened species, but it can be locally abundant in lowland situations.

  The Smallmouth Salamanders are extremely early breeders that make their way to the breeding pools during the first warm rains of spring. By saying “warm” I am using a relative term, because this event often occurs when there is still snow on the ground and the pools are iced over. The 2008 annual breedfest has apparently already occurred and I have missed it -again. The last time I witnessed Smallmouth breeding activity was over 20 years ago on a “warm” rainy April night in which my fingers became numb while holding the flashlight. In the intervening years, I have been satisfied by simply spotting their egg clusters as confirmation that “they” are still around.

  Someone brought an adult specimen to me this year, so my Smallmouth fix came in a very direct form. I was delighted at the rare sight and wanted to share it with you. Here’s a picture of the “sally” in question (see here). As you can see (here), it’s a well named critter because it has a relatively small head which is endowed with a small mouth (in which the lower jaw projects slightly forward in Ally Oop fashion). They are typically 4-7 inches long with four stubby legs, a large flattened tail, and a color matching that found on those old speckled enamel pans.  In hand, you can get a sense of the beautifully mottled blue “lichen-like” spots that stand out like Van Gogh stars against a deep blue-black background (see here).

  This particular fella was injured -perhaps by a bird or fox that decided eating it was a bad idea. Poison glands in the skin, especially along the top of the tail, exude nasty secretions when the creature is handled roughly.  Feisty Smallmouths will actually arch their tail up when threatened as if to say “make my day” to potential day spoilers. Unfortunately, they always run the risk that something will roughly sample them before realizing the error of their ways.  In this case, the salamander had some small puncture wounds on the shoulder and neck.  It was probably intercepted on its journey away from the breeding area. Individuals who loose part of their tail or a foot can eventually re-grow them, but internal damage is quite another thing. I’m pulling for this guy, none-the-less.

  Somewhere out there in muckland, I trust there is a quiet little pool full of the promise of new life wrought by this creature.  These short-legged amphibians don’t wander far, so the breeding location has to be in relatively close proximity. Smallmouth eggs are attached to submerged twigs and look like seeds imbedded within a gelatinous mass (see here). Salamander eggs do not have a shell but are protectively wrapped inside clear concentric membranes.  The gelatin coating swells when it contacts water like Jell-O mix in a bowl.

  I have to admit that I don’t know if this individual is a male or a female, but suspect a feminine persuasion due to the lack of a swollen vent (please don’t ask me what that means).  If a female, it would have done the egg-laying, of course. If it is a male, then it would have performed the ritual dance.  The guys, you see, deposit their sperm packets on top of little gel pedestals (called spermatophores) all over the bottom of the pool.  Then, through a series of seductive silent dance moves, they lure the females along a route that brings them directly over one of the pedestals. Once positioned, she willingly takes in the fertile packet to fertilize the eggs. Needless to say, she dances with several males in order to spice things up.

  After a week, the larvae (see here) will emerge from the eggs to carry on these life traditions. Eventually they loose their external gills, grow a full set of walking legs, and wander off to join the secret society of the Smallmouths. Being of small mouth, they don’t easily give away their secrets either.

April 1, 2008

B.S. Fullava’s Frog

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:47 pm

It was with some suspicion that I decided to take up Bob Fullava’s invitation to go frog hunting.  Even though he set up several earlier dates, one thing or another led to each one being cancelled out until this morning – which happened to be April 1st.  Late last night, the answering machine picked up his call while I was out.  “Gerry. Gerry.  H-e-l-l-o  G-e-r-r-y,” was the recorded message intoned in that distinctive left brained voice of his (he is one of those people who are still un-schooled in answering machines). “Uh.  Say, about tomorrow. Uh. Let’s plan on it.  Pick you up at 7:30.  Can you hear me?  O.K. well, umm, call me back to let me know. That’s 7 in the morning.”  Then he hung up.

  Immediately following this message another one, unidentified but from the same source, quickly spelled out “6-1-6-2-2-8-1-5-1…”  An explosive burst of dog barking blocked out the last number before he hung up again.  My Caller I.D. clearly listed Bob’s number, so the last digit was un-necessary. I called him back and confirmed that I’d be ready at sunrise.

  You might think this time of year to be a bit early for frog hunting, but it’s actually a bit late for the type we are seeking.  As soon as the snows begin to melt in late winter, the tiny chorus frogs begin to sing out from the security of temporary woodland pools (like this one here). These ephemeral bodies of water, called vernal ponds, offer a comfortable location for egg laying and tadpole rearing.  The water usually dries up by mid-summer, so the froglets need to complete their development before this happens.  Salamanders also employ these pools for their egg laying as well.

  The big advantage in setting up a nursery in such a transitory environment is that there are usually no significant predators in such a place.  There normally are no fish or turtles, and usually no water scorpions or giant water bugs to eat up the defenseless young.

  Bob and I were not seeking chorus frogs or salamanders on this windy April morning, however.  We were looking for Pistol Frogs. These elusive creatures are found only in select locations throughout the state and are seldom recorded because of their extremely limited breeding period. It so happens that their only southeast Michigan population is found at Crosswinds Marsh – just north of the Monroe County line.

  The “Pfrogs,” as they are known, were discovered by Mr.Fuliva only five years ago and he is the reigning expert on this species.  He’s a shipping clerk by profession but a well-respected amateur Herpetologist (that’s someone who studies reptiles and amphibians) with a national reputation.

  “Hey,” he greeted me in typical style as he picked me up at exactly 7:30 this morning, “’ja get my message?”  “Yes I did – remember I called you back.”  “Oh yes, yes, yes, that’s right. I have a heck of a long ride you know and I wanted to make sure that….”  “Yeah, I know,” I responded with a gentle cut off, “and I appreciate you doing this for me.”  “Yeah, alright then. Do you want the rest of my Egg McMuffin?”

  We headed up to Crosswinds and parked in the lot.  This day was gray and nasty. Several wind gusts had nearly pushed over his funky old Toyota on the way up, so it was a day suited for only this one mission.  We wasted no time heading out on the woodland trail and our pace slowed considerably as we neared the boardwalk that spanned the largest vernal pond.

  “This is the place,” Bob chirped.  He fairly squealed with delight upon noting that the ice was not fully melted from the pond.  “This is the perfect setup for Pistol Frogs – they only come out during that short time between first melt and open water. I was worried that we were too late.”  “I was worried that you waited until April Fool’s day,” I quipped and we both had a hardy laugh. The pool was full of calling Chorus frogs, which was a good sign that Pistol frogs would be about.  Unfortunately our burst of laughter combined with our heavy footfalls on the boardwalk silenced the chorus.

  Bob kneeled down to get a better look at the remaining ice.  It was melted away from the tree bases and fallen logs and pock-marked with holes. “See those holes,” he observed. “Pistol Frogs made those.”  “Are we likely to see any?” I asked.  “Mebbe,” was his whispered response, “never can tell about these things and…” A single Spring Peeper started up his lonely tweeting melody from the far edge of the pool and suddenly stopped.  “J’here that?” Bob interrupted his earlier thought to interject. “It stopped.  That Peeper stopped. Pistol Frog probably got him.” 

  You will remember that I stated earlier that Chorus Frogs and the like breed in temporary ponds in order to avoid predators.  The Pistol Frog has learned to take advantage of the situation and has turned to preying upon Chorus frogs – and the occasional Peeper. This predatory amphibian mimics the appearance of their prey and so is difficult to identify. But, their behavior is strikingly different.

  “Do you think?” I asked, “I didn’t hear anything unusual.”  “No, you won’t neither.  The Pistols emit a high frequency burst that nearly obliterates their prey.  It’s beyond our hearing,” he explained. “I shoulda brought my frequency meter.  I made the mistake of bringing McNugget (his dog) one time and the sound blast nearly drove her insane ‘cause it was in her hearing range. She’s always biting green things now – anything green. She never did that before.”

  We waited a few more anxious minutes before speaking again. Bob explained that the auditory blast from Pistol Frogs literally explodes their victims from the inside out. “Mushes ‘em up on the inside and causes them to croak.  I mean to die, you know.” They apparently make those ice holes using the same method, but he explained that he hasn’t been able to personally observe that part of their behavior. “Then the Pfrogs suck out the body juice,” he continued.  “One meal and they are ready to lay their own eggs.  After that they disappear into the forest leaf litter.”

  Frozen into place, literally, we scanned the pool for activity.  I was now especially interested in seeing one of these things. “Look into the holes,” whispered my companion as he motioned to those features nearest our position “they’ll wait there just under the surface until another frog comes along to check out the light.”

  Unfortunately, nearly a half hour of listening, looking and probing yielded nothing more than the presence of Chorus Frogs. The temperature was dropping, so even they were slowing down. There were no further peeps from the Peeper either.

  “Doggone it,” Bob finally broke the silence and said. “I think we missed them for today.  It’s getting late (even though it was only 10:30 am).  You know, I think there was only one in this pool and he already ate – he popped that Peeper!”  He then typically destroyed his brand of Bob humor by explaining that he meant “he consumed it.”

  “That’s it?” I asked. “Fraid so.  The other pool is way over on the other side and I don’t think it’s worth checking out,” he apologized. So, that was it.  “I’ve got to get home to feed my dog,” he said as we trudged back,” she’s become a very finicky eater as of late.”

  I vowed to come back tomorrow even if Mr. B. couldn’t make it. “You can give me a call anytime.” Bob said as he dropped me off. “I’ll get you a glimpse of a Pistol frog one of these days.  I think you’ve got my phone number, but you can always look me up in the Fowlerville book. It’s under Fullava, B.S.”

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