Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 31, 2008

Sun Worship

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:14 am

   On a recent chilly morning with temperatures hovering in the middle 50’s, I came upon 10 sunning Painted Turtles. I guess you could call such an assemblage a herd or even a flock of turtles. I think a shellage might be a better term – or how about a palette. Yes, a palette of Painted Turtles sounds nice. Anyway, this particular palette of painters was participating in the pursuit of power: solar power.

  Like all cold blooded creatures they require the warmth of a star some 93 million miles away to jump start their internal engines.  Painted Turtles are well adapted to northern climes. They hibernate through most of the winter, but will swim under the ice on occasion and are able to get around on very cold early spring days. A 50-some degree day is relatively warm for such a beast. On this day, the turtles were drawn to an open spot in the marsh where they could take full advantage of old Sol. Each was hauled out onto a pad of cat-tail roots or a clump of low vegetation. What was fascinating, in terms of this discussion, was that all of them had oriented their shell surface in the same direction and all were positioned at about the same angle.

  It is no surprise that their shells were oriented toward the low southern sun (see here). They chose the mid-morning period just as the golden rays were peeking over the shadows cast by the cat-tail tops. The fact that they were oriented at the same angle was no coincidence, however. This angle was about 40 degrees.

  I know this not because I have an eye for angles – for I am not an angler (that was a joke). The skittish turtles, would not have allowed me to measure them either. No, this happens to be the golden angle for maximum solar absorption at our latitude (that was not a joke).

  Allow me to present another example of this natural solar knowledge. Wood Ants construct large angled nests out of soil particles (see here). These ants work together as a group to maintain their roof at an angle that picks up the heat from the low morning sun when they need it most. Since they can’t constantly adjust to the sun’s changing position, they instinctively choose the best general angle. I was able to measure this angle since ant hills don’t scurry away at the sight of humans. Sure enough, the angle was about 40 degrees with a southward orientation.

  When we peoplekind put up solar panels, we are generally instructed to place them so that they face south and have a “tilt about equal to your latitude.” Our local latitude is about 42 degrees from the equator, by the way. More specifically, the optimum angle recommended for our position on the earth is closer to 40 degrees during the spring and autumn. The summer angle is about 12 degrees lower.

  Summer conditions require a lower angle because the sun is higher in the sky. The turtles will oblige by lowering their shell angles to about 25 degrees when that time comes but the ants will be happy with what they have. I hope you’ll be happy knowing how energy smart turtles and ants really are.

May 28, 2008

I Came, I Seed, I Conquered

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:14 pm

  They issued from the tree cavity one by one and encircled the trunk in a general downward direction. Six brand new Red Squirrels tentatively made their way toward the ground 10 feet below to gather maple seeds. Moving in nervous spurts – as if driven by puffs of inner air – they constantly stopped to employ their keen senses toward predator detection. Arriving at the base, they extended their tiny bodies out only as far as absolutely necessary in order to snatch a winged seed from the ground with their mouths. Most kept their hind feet firmly in contact with the bark while venturing leech-like with their forequarters toward the intended prize.

  Seed in mouth, they retracted and scurried back to a horizontal location on a branch or root platform to perform a precise culinary dissection (see above). The seeds were dispatched with a few peeling bites to expose the green inner core and the dry wings were released to the breeze.

  These young squirrels were well on their way to independence but highly nervous about life in general. The shadow of a passing robin eventually sent them into a panic. All the adventurers swiftly retreated to the safety of the den hole where they remained for the rest of the afternoon.

  This litter of Reds had the good fortune to be born into a banner maple seed year. They will have the luxury of overstuffing on the nutritious meal stuff well before the supply runs out. Their efforts will have little or no impact on the maple crop. It is very likely that several seeds will go on to sprout and several squirrels will grow into obnoxious adults this year.

  Last year, the story would have been very different.  Many of last years squirrlets would have grown up without tasting a single maple seed because the entire seed crop failed. I tried to follow the course of the Red and Silver Maples from flower to seed last spring but found that an early cold spell nipped the production in the bud. These two species put out their seeds early in the season– a risky behavior during a cold spring. Other maples wait until fall to produce their precious packets of life. I literally found only a few dozen spring seeds that matured and spiraled to the ground.  Such was the case throughout the region. 

  Trees, like the Red and Silver maples, tend to be very resilient and follow bad years with incredibly productive ones like this one. To those of us who are homeowners that have to clean out our gutters and sweep off our driveways, this may not seem to be especially welcome news. But, I suggest you take a squirrel’s eye view of the situation and welcome the opportunity.

  Maple seeds are technically called “samaras” – another one of those Latin words which means “elm seed.”  This, of course, makes no sense but since elm seeds are winged, the term has come to refer to all seeds that have wings (and you don’t argue with dead Latin people). They, the seeds that is, are made to autogyrate their way to the ground via their stiff mono wings.

  The samaras start off as mismatched but conjoined pairs (see here) but upon maturing split up into independent travelers. The purpose of the wing is to slow down the seed descent enough so that the wind can transport it away from the parent tree. Landing directly under the tree will place you into a fatal shadow land where growth is impossible. It takes about a foot and a half of drop before the seeds re-orient themselves seed first and begin to spin (a fact I discovered after taking this ill fated art shot!). At this point in the fall, the wing is engaged (naturally designed at a perfect 3:1 ratio of length to width) at a 15 degree tilt and rotation begins. The fall is reduced to approximately 3 feet per second and the wind is given a chance to carry the seed away from the parent tree. 

  Most of the seeds don’t make it very far.  On the ground around the Red Squirrel maple, I counted an average density of 40 seeds per square foot!  Most -if not all -of the seeds will end up as sun-deprived seedlings, squirrel meal, or victims of a rotating steel blade.  I witnessed a few that fortuitously dropped during a stiff breeze, and these were carried up and out of sight. Maybe one or two of these will find soil and sanctuary.

  My little Red Squirrels could care less about such things, but they too will need to spread away from the home tree in order to survive. Their parents will drive them off just as the wind pushes samaras to distant locations. In the real world, an apple needs to fall far from the tree in order to have any chance at life.

May 26, 2008

Pre-ripened Chicks

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:12 pm

  Killdeer chicks are among the cutest (can you say “Ka-Yoot!”) of all baby birds but they can’t rely solely on their leggy good looks to get them through early life.  They need to enter onto the world stage a step ahead of most other avian young because the world is already a step ahead of them. Their parents started them off in an exposed ground nest- a mere scrape in the soil surrounded by short grass or gravel.

  As eggs they were protected by a cryptically camouflaged egg pattern which made them virtually invisible. This vulnerable stage lasts for 24-28 days during which time the vigilant adult birds incubate and keep a watchful eye out for predators. Upon hatching, the chicks have another danger ridden month to go until they can fly.

  From the moment they exit the egg, the chicks are expected to get up and out of the nest scrape as soon as possible. They are precocial – a term which means they are ready from the get-go. In Latin, this word means something like “ripened beforehand” or “early maturing” (using the same root word used to describe a human youngster who is “precocious” and advanced beyond their years). Chickens, ducks, rails, and pheasants also have precocial young. These birdlets spend a long time ripening inside a relatively large egg and thus emerge with large heads, open eyes, strong legs and a full coat of downy fluff.  They can feed themselves soon after hatching.

  Precocial chicks are tough customers. One killdeer baby survived a seven story drop after it launched off the top of a gravel top roof where the nest was located. Wood Duck young routinely drop great distances from their tree hole nests and bounce harmlessly off the hard ground!

  Altricial birds, such as robins, are born helpless, blind, and naked.  Altricial means “to nourish” and such birds need to have food brought to them by a wet nurse, so to speak.  In theory, an altricial bird is about two weeks behind a precocial bird upon hatching. But, it is important to note that such birds also are brought up in secure locations and are in less immediate danger than the precocial sort.

  Even though killdeer chicks can locate their insect food on their own, they still need some degree of parental protection during the long pre-flight stage. I stumbled upon a group of newly hatched killdeer the other day and was delighted to see the adult bird gallantly going through her broken wing act in order to lure me away. The chicks scattered about (see here) while mom acted as a decoy. Three out of the four young scampered across the road and easily put distance between me and them. These chicks are endowed with disproportionately long legs and they can put them to use with great effect.

  The fourth chick, however, found itself somewhat cornered. It hesitated and couldn’t manage the end run before I closed the distance. At this point, it immediately employed another trick from the instinctual playbook – it stepped into a patch of slightly longer grass, crouched down, and froze into position.

  Like the eggs they came from, the chicks are cryptically colored. When fully pressed to the ground (like this) they are very hard to see. I was able to get this picture only because I saw exactly where this killdeer fawn stopped and dropped. I parted the grass in order to get a better shot and the bird remained motionless (see here).

  That ability to freeze and remain frozen is a crucial part of the plan. It resisted the urge to bolt even when I moved it slightly while moving one of the grass stems. The tiny bird performed the routine like a practiced pro even though it was only a few hours old.

  As an altricial human being, who was unable to do anything but cry when only a few hours old, I was impressed.

May 23, 2008

No, It’s a Good Thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:18 pm

  The Purple Loosestrife is a beautiful flowering plant that hails from across the pond in Europe. As a garden plant, their slender magenta inflorescences add a special hue and a certain amount of verticality to the cultured garden-scape. Their long summer bloom time adds to their potential charm. After that glowing introduction, you’d think that the sight of a bunch of leaf hungry beetles reducing one of these plants to the vegetative equivalent of Swiss cheese would be a bad thing – a gardener’s nightmare. Truth is, the scene pictured above is a good thing.

  Like so many other garden plants, domestic Loosestrife escaped over the white picket fences and ran rampant over the landscape. By the mid 1990’s these aggressive aliens found their way into nearly every marsh in the Midwest. Lacking any New World pests, they were able to aggressively dominate and began to choke out the native flora and destroy wetland habitats. Many of our local marshes were reduced to pure plots of purple summer haze.

  The ‘strife was well on its way to becoming a grim ecological reaper of doom. It appeared that we mortals were powerless against it (Even Batman and Superman were rendered neutral in this affair). Thankfully, the solution finally came in the form of a 1/8th inch beetle called the Gallarucella, or Loosestrife, Beetle (here, take a look see). Researchers spent the better part of the last decade divining what the natural homeland enemy of the Loosestrife was and came up with this humble little bug that ate ONLY Purple Loosestrife. It was crucial to establish that this critter would not turn to other plant species if it was going to be considered as a control agent. Gallarucella passed the test with flying colors.

  To make this long story short, the beetle was introduced throughout the Midwest. Many individuals, and institutions (mine included), participated in rearing beetle populations and releasing them into ‘strife infected environs.  The effort turned out to be very successful and the Purple plague was nipped in the bud.

  It has been many years since I released any beetles at Lake Erie Metropark. The beetles have taken over the situation on their own and require no more assistance from us – as the scene above illustrates.

  This time of year, the adult beetles are emerging from their pupas. They immediately assemble on the new Loosestrife shoots and begin eating holes into the leaves. Soon, the like minded, and well fed, beetles get together and mate. Eggs are laid, larvae are hatched, and feeding goes on. The larvae burrow into the growing shoot of the plant and eventually kill the new growth. By the time the next generation of beetles come out later in the summer, the weakened loosestrife are barely able to maintain their growth, leave alone attempt any flowering. They become stunted, malnourished and eventually die.

  The other part of this good news story is that the Loosestrife plants are not totally destroyed. They continue to hold on and sprout, but they do so as peasant villagers within the eco-system and not as conquering despots.  This insures that Loosestrife beetles will always have food resources in order to maintain their purple policing duties. In the near future, the gardener will be able to once again enjoy this plant as a domestic, but will need to keep it sprayed just like the other plants.

  It is time to pause and honor the power of the meek and mighty Gallarucella.

May 21, 2008

Along Came a Spider

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:34 am

   We’ve all been in the situation where we discover a Buick-sized spider in the tub or sink. Usually the spider in question is more comparable in size to a VW Beetle, but the absence of scale causes us to exaggerate a bit. My son came in from mowing the lawn the other day and bent down to wash his hands. A sizable spider, pictured above, fell off of his shoulder and landed in the sink basin before him – which elicited a gyrating dance accompanied by self flagellation.

  Had this of been my oldest son, he would have immediately washed the thing down the drain in a sudden gush of super hot water. Number two son, however, left the creature in state and informed me of a spider in the sink. “Is it a big one?” I asked. “Kinda,” he said, “but I’m not sure what kind it is.” I followed him back and when he pointed it out I blurted out “Holy Cow!” Now, I didn’t actually say those words, mind you, but expressed an emotion slightly more extreme than that sentiment.

  What I initially saw was a Buick-sized smooth bodied spider lying on its back in the middle of the basin. Large spiders are one of the only natural phobias I have, so I had to fight back the knee-jerk reaction to immediately flush it down the drain with a sudden gush of super hot water. My naturalist’s instinct took over when I realized the thing wasn’t moving at all and was very fresh and un-squished. Dead spiders curl up when dead because they are essentially fluid filled leg bags that deflate when whacked or dried up. This one was as fresh as a…a…. live spider, but without the jerky movements. It was a Sow bug Killer Spider and one of the largest I have seen.

  The thing was actually only about an inch long from leg tip to leg tip – they are much smaller without the fenders and such. I carefully picked it up, or rather, pushed the limp body over onto a napkin and then picked up the napkin (phobias have no rhyme or reason). It was only after verifying that the arachnid was not “alive” that I placed it in my hand to take some photos of the underside. I will admit that if someone had snuck up behind me while I was doing this and screamed something like “It’s moving!,” I would have thrown it into the air and squealed like a little girl. My number two son was far too respectful to engage in such foolishness (a fact that makes me somewhat ashamed because I would have done it to him).

  Anyway, looking at the still spider in hand gave me an opportunity to examine it in some detail and admire its brick red cephalo-thorax (literally “head-body”) and silky textured abdomen (butt). Sow bug Killers are equipped with an incredible set of long fangs which they use to pierce the tough outer shell of their namesake prey – sow bugs (a.k.a. rolly pollies, pill bugs, or woodlice). They are pouncing predators which do not make webs to ensnare their prey. You’ll also notice the slit-like book lungs that can be seen at the front end of the abdomen.

  On the topside (another view here) you can appreciate- or not- the same color features mentioned before and the feminine lines of this specimen which is a female. Male spiders are nearly always smaller than the females. These European immigrants defy the usual spider tradition by having only six rather than eight eyes. The eyes are arranged in a semi-circle at the head end of the “head-body.”

  The question came up as to how this thing ended up on my son’s shoulder in the first place. S.B.K’s are ground dwelling spiders which lurk about under logs or around damp garage spaces where sow bugs live. They can climb well enough, but their chosen lifestyle doesn’t require it, so how did it end up six feet off the ground?  This one was paralyzed as well, which is why it offered no resistance and why it flopped off his shoulder like a rag doll into the sink. There is only one answer that satisfies these two riddles: wasps.

  Many wasp species, such as Mud Daubers, feed their young exclusively on spiders. They paralyze their victims and seal them up in mud chambers so their larvae can feast on their freshly preserved flesh. I believe this spider was in the process of being flown to its grim destiny when the wasp carrying it accidently dropped it onto my son’s shoulder – probably frightened by the sudden motion beneath it.

  Instead of ending up as maggot food, it became a subject of timid study.  I have to admit that I found the Sow bug Killer to be an impressive beast and have to give credit to that nameless wasp for rendering it into a state which I felt almost safe handling it. These things are not dangerous to people whatsoever, but you know what I mean. Finally, thanks to my son for having the presence of mind to resist the urge to flush it down the drain with a sudden gush of super hot water. I will award him six “son points” and allow him to pay for my ticket to the new Indiana Jones movie.

May 17, 2008

Mr. Four Eyes

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:10 pm

 

  As a kid who grew up wearing glasses, I never took great offense at the term “Four Eyes.”  When I later had to switch to bifocals I became slightly more worried about what that term really meant.  I was faced with the prospect of literally looking at the world through two sets of eyes and became worried that it would hinder my view of the world.  As it turned out, there was no need to worry because it actually enhanced my view of the natural world (and shortened my arms considerably!).

  With this background explained, perhaps you’ll understand why I have something in common with Whirligig Beetles. These common water beetles are also endowed with “four” eyes and they benefit greatly from them.   

  Just in case you have never heard of a Whirligig Beetle, let me remind you that these are those random little swimming things that you see on the surface of a pond (see above).  Looking like so many bumper cars at a carnival, these shiny black bugs gather into large social groups and appear to spend a lot of time swirling around in random confusion. I too spend an inordinate amount of time doing random things, so I see yet another parallel between our worlds.

  “Gigs” are members of the beetle clan. As card carrying members of God’s favorite type of insect, they have a set of hard exterior wing covers called elytra (see here). They are exceedingly streamlined for their aquatic lifestyle with a body shaped like a black metal pumpkinseed (and about the same size as one also.)  These beetles can dive – holding a bubble under their wing covers for an air supply – and fly great distances from water if the need arises. Their front legs are modified as long grabbing appendages and their third set of legs are converted into oar-like paddles for swimming (see here). They are best known, however, for their whirling behavior.

  The aquatic world is already chock full of fully aquatic beetles and the aerial world has an ample share of insects also.  Whirligigs, therefore, are specialized to live at the interface of these two worlds. They whirl about on the surface film and keep in constant vibratory touch with each other using wavelets to communicate. Take a look at this picture and you’ll see the pattern of vibrations emanating from each ‘gig expressed as a shadowy pattern on the bottom.  Their short stubby antennae have 2 scoop-like segments at their bases which pick up the surface vibrations (see here). This telecommunication behavior alerts them to danger and to the presence of food – they scavenge anything that falls onto the surface of the water.

  Aside from the fact that Whirligigs smell like apples when handled (I just had to throw that in somewhere), perhaps the single most unique feature is their divided eye. Gigs have only two large compound eyes, but a face plate separates each one into an upward facing “sky eye” and a downward facing “water eye.” They have bifocals, in other words.  They keep an eye on both worlds at the same time with the waterline always at mid-level.

  There are hundreds of species of Whirligig beetles in the world and all pretty much do the four eye thing. Recently, that species list was bolstered by the discovery of a new type in India. This new bug was named after legendary Rocker Roy Orbison, believe it or not – one of the more famous four-eyes in music history.

May 15, 2008

Why I Hate Raccoons

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:28 pm

 

 While I really really dislike cats, I don’t hate them.  I understand that cats could care less that I dislike them – which is one of the reasons I dislike them. I do hate raccoons, however. O.K, hate is such a strong word, but let’s just say that I really really really dislike them.  I do not deliberately swerve to hit them while driving or attempt to re-run them over after they are already dead, but I have thought about it.

  Perhaps the best way to explain “why” I feel negative about raccoons is to say that I’ve seen how destructive these bandits can be to their fellow earth mates. Allow me to present you with an example.

  Take a look at the picture above.  This is a cluster of eggs from a mallard duck nest – a regular discovery this time of year. This nest was worthy of closer investigation because this particular hen decided to lay her eggs in an eagle nest (see here). The nest is actually a demonstration nest that we built at the Lake Erie Marshlands Museum so that kids could climb into it. It has the size and grandeur of a Bald Eagle Aerie without the tremendous height (and insurance needs).

  About a week ago, a curious visitor stopped by to ask whether those eggs in the eagle nest were real. We said “what eggs?” and immediately assumed someone had tossed in some of the plastic Easter variety. Imagine our surprise upon discovering that the eggs were real and that they were Mallard Duck eggs. About the size of small chicken eggs, Mallard eggs are light buffy green and relatively oval in outline. The hen was nowhere to be seen, but there was no doubt about it.

  Ducks are not fancy nest makers. They usually scrape a shallow depression into the ground, but occasionally find a place high off the ground such as a rooftop or the top of a broken tree trunk. This female had neatly arranged a few plumes of Phragmite Reed (another thing I hate) and some bark chips to create her nest within a nest.

  I decided to track her progress and found that she had added an egg a day for the next two days. The female would be on the nest every morning but leave it by mid-day. Mallard females don’t start the incubation process until the entire clutch is laid, so they leave them exposed during this time.  Our female started to incubate her eggs the day before yesterday after laying 5 eggs.

  I think you know the rest of this story.  Here’s what the nest looked like today (see here). The hen was gone. A raider had paid the nest a destructive overnight visit and destroyed all the eggs. Four of the eggs were obliterated outright, but one remained whole. This one was punctured at one end with a half moon pattern of tooth marks that matched those of a raccoon – the yolk had drained out and soaked the bottom of the nest depression.

  Need I say more? This incident is not unique. Raccoons have become the second most destructive agent of duck nests in the country. Although Mallards are holding their own, many other ground nesting duck species are suffering due to the effects of bandit raiding. In some years, a local population is unable to successfully produce any ducklings due to the overpopulation of raccoons. Turtle nests suffer the same fate at the paws of these nest robbers. This is why I hate raccoons.

  Should I happen upon this eagle nest robber when I’m behind the wheel next time I will swerve toward it.  I will not carry it further than that because I can’t blame the raccoon. I can hate ‘em, but I can’t blame ‘em. People, you see, are the single most destructive agent when it comes to duck nest destruction. We have destroyed so much native nesting habitat over the decades that it makes the exploits of one raccoon pale in significance. 

  I would be running over myself if I carried out that vehicular varmiticide. How about that for self psycho analysis!

May 13, 2008

Single Female Seeks Male Companion

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:53 pm

   You might recall my discussion of a cocoon from an earlier Naturespeak (see Polyphemus Awaits).  When I brought it in from the snowy woods a few months ago I had no way of knowing it was the residence of a sleeping cyclopean queen.

  The distinctive oval shape defined it as belonging to a member of the giant silk moth clan known as Polyphemus – named after that sharp-stick-in-the-eye giant Cyclops of Homerian myth – but it’s gender was to remain a mystery until it emerged. I took the promising package home and kept it in my unheated back porch to await the advent of spring.

  The moth emerged a week ago and I’m proud to announce that it’s a girl! I discovered the moth late in the afternoon when I returned home from work.  It had been my habit to check up on the cocoon everyday since the beginning of May like an expectant father (awkward, especially given the fact that my wife wasn’t the mother). My new “child” had scrambled up the side of a plastic milk crate and was hanging languidly off the side (see above). She appeared quite fresh and her wings were still slightly wrinkled with excess moisture.  I don’t think I missed the event by more than an hour.

  I really wanted to see the so-called “eclosure” to verify that these moths use wing spurs to tear through the tough silken webbing of the cocoon, but C’est la Vie. All giant silk moths use caustic spit (not an official term) to soften the fibers so they can push through, but there is evidence that some actually rasp their way through with spurs. The empty cocoon sat on the table with a neat circular opening in one end. The borders of the hole were pushed out from the action of the fat little body passing through on its way to a new life (see above).

  A newly emerged Polyphemus Moth is a thing of beauty.  Take a nice close look at her picture and you’ll delight in her fine fuzzy coat of tawny scales. Note how her wing windows are subtly frosted and her antennae combs are modestly spaced.  She can’t smile, because she has no mouth, but that demure look from those beautiful compound eyes says it all. Her only job now is to find a male. She will accomplish this task without going anywhere. The guys are supposed to come to her.

  To accomplish this, she releases a continual plume of scented molecules as a signal for all willing males to home in on the love target. These sex pheromones will ride the wind for miles until they are snagged by a male’s antennae. The suitors are guided in like fat boys to a barbecue. I, therefore, wasted no time in putting her outside so that she could put her alluring charms to work (here she is in the open mesh bag I suspended from the picnic table).

  Unfortunately her chosen emergence week has consisted of nothing but a string of cold and rainy nights. All those fat boys – if there are any out there – are hang’n tight.  Every morning before breakfast and work, I run (actually walk slowly and somewhat unsurely) to the back window to peer outside at her mesh enclosure to see if Mr. Right has arrived. Normally, the males will hang about the place until given access. 

  No one has shown up yet and I’m getting worried. It’s going on a week now and still she waits in vain. My little charge will be dead within a week (remember, she can’t eat) and she, well, deserves the best of everything during her short life. I’m thinking of putting out a personal ad to help her out, but need to word it tastefully: “Single Female Seeks Male Companion for One Night Stand.” Does that sound too blunt?

 

May 11, 2008

Mudbug on the Move

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:08 am

  You never know what an overnight spring rain will bring out.  “Things” come up out of the ground into the moist night air and are there in the morning for the curious to find. Worms are the most obvious of the rain flushed sort. What would a springy wet morning be without that wormy smell in the air?

  Morel mushrooms are the most desirable of such finds, but I have not been lucky enough to find any this year. A friend of mine recently gathered several hat-fulls of these delectable mushrooms and informed me that he got slightly sick by eating too many of them. “I have never had the opportunity to get overfull on morels,” I informed him and elaborated on the thought by mentioning that I would be more than happy to take these burdensome fungi off his hands next time. Of course, there may not be a next time this year. They say worms are good when fried up, but I do not anticipate getting stuffed on them any time soon.

  Another friend gave me the opportunity to pick up her post rain find. Her discovery could also be considered edible, but only in certain parts of the country. Edible or not, she didn’t want to touch it and knew that I would pick up just about anything – dead or alive. The thing was a mudbug, also known as a crayfish. This beast was completing a wet night stroll across a parking lot and was confronted with a formidable barrier in the form of a curb. I plucked it from the wet pavement and plunked it into a jar for later observation.

  It might seem odd that a crayfish would be out wandering on terra firma, but this particular voyager was a Burrowing Crayfish (see above). These crustaceans are capable of extended journeys into the upper world as long as they can return to the water on a regular basis. Rainy or moist nights beckon them out to feed on rotting vegetation, worms and other such delicacies and daylight prompts them to return to the sanctuary of their muddy water filled holes (see here). 

  In hand, crayfish look like miniature lobsters. Take a look at this view and you can see the claws (called chelicerae), body (carapace) and tail section (tail section). Burrowing Crayfish have fairly small claws when compared to others of their kind, but otherwise are typical in all regards.

  Their beady eyes are actually compound eyes much like those of an insect. The individual eye facets are sensitive to movement. Collectively they form an un-focused pixilated image of the world which means this poor guy was forced to look at a thousand fuzzy views of my face as I examined it. For a higher life form such an image would be nightmarish. Fortunately, crayfish are endowed with only simple nerve swellings for a brain, so they are unburdened with any emotion.

  An underside view (see here) reveals some of the hidden aspects of crayfish existence. There are five pairs of swimmerets under the tail section. This specimen was a female as evidenced by the fact that the first pair are not modified into sperm transfer “arms.” She will eventually carry her eggs within the protective envelope of these swimmerets should she be lucky enough to find a boy crayfish. All of the legs are attached to the main body under the carapace. You’ve probably noticed that the first several sets just behind the main claws end in a pair of tiny pincers while the rest are reserved for walking purposes.

  Before I put this wanderer back into her element, I want to point out one more thing. Take a good look at this underside view and you’ll notice those two pearl-like spots located just ahead of the multiple mouth parts. Structures such as these are firm proof that we are dealing with a creature that is very different from us. These things are called Green Glands Pores. They connect to internal green glands (really?) which function as kidneys.

  If you consider that these excretory pores are outlets for the liquid waste produced by the green glands, you’ll realize that the burrowing crayfish is a potty mouth. Yes, they pee out of an opening located right next to their mouth!  Aren’t you glad to know that?

May 8, 2008

Living on Oak Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:43 pm

   It wasn’t so long ago that farmers timed their annual planting and harvest cycles on seasonal phenology. They didn’t call it that, but they were practicing an age old recognition that certain natural things happened at certain times of the year – every year. Calendar dates weren’t as important as naturally observed events.

  Corn planting time around these parts has always been from late April through the first week of May, but old time farmers simply looked to their local oak trees for the go ahead.  “Plant corn when the oak leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear,” they’d say.  They didn’t need to worry about the soil temperature getting up over 50 degrees or fret a whole lot about fancy hybrid growing needs. The oaks were good enough to determine the relatively short optimum planting time. Oak trees are among the last trees to commit their greenery to the whims of spring, so their decision implies that the warm season has really begun.

  This week, our oak trees are leafing out so I sampled a few budding clusters to see what stage they were at.  Indeed they are at the squirrel ear stage right now. The large white oak tree pictured above arrived at squirrel ear stage earlier this week and was already surrounded by freshly tilled ground by the time I photographed it. Here is a scene as old as farming itself.

  With the emergence of the leaflets, the trees also send out their clusters of dangling flower catkins. Take a look here at this cluster of Burr Oak leaves and you’ll see that each catkin has 30-35 beadlike floral clusters strung along its length.  These are the pollen producing male flowers that will soon fall off.  This discussion isn’t about the flowers, however, it’s all about the leaves and the squirrels. (You may find it interesting to know that the leaf sample I am holding in the picture was provided to me by a Fox Squirrel. The creature nipped it off and dropped it to the ground in front of me.) Notice that these perfect little baby leaves are about an 1- 1 ½ inch long. In order to determine if this particular tree (and this particular squirrel) was telling me to plant corn, I needed to establish the dimension of an average squirrel’s ear.

  There is no such thing as a plain “squirrel,” but for the sake of simplicity and in the interest of keeping this thing in line with folk wisdom, I decided that the familiar Fox Squirrel will be the designated “squirrel” in question. This is the woodland squirrel that associates with the oak woodlots and the one that brought the subject down to my level.  According to the Mammals of Michigan book, a classic tome by Dr. Roland Baker, the ear measurement of Sciurus niger (aka Fox Squirrel) is ¾ -1 ½ inch from notch to tip. The leaves and the ears are a match. It is time to poke the ground with yellow seeds.

  Of course, today corn planting is neatly done with mega machinery, but back in the old days the corn was planted in mounds. The same farmers that cited squirrel ear lore also took pains to plant seven kernels in each mound to honor the age old tradition that acknowledges: “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, three for the cutworm, and two to grow.”  Even if the seeds were planted at the correct time, the farmer had to heed the other realities of nature.

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