Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 30, 2008

The Horntail Cometh

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:55 pm

  I’ve been concerned about the health of my backyard Silver Maple as of late. The tree has slowly been falling apart and whole limbs have died back to the main trunk.  One section of the upper main trunk has rotted to the core – much to the pleasure of a family of Red Squirrels that raised a brood in the cavity this summer.  Yet my tree continues to produce fresh green leaves and branches like a faithful old white-faced dog.

  I, like a faithful old dog owner, have chosen to ignore what I know to be true – the tree is in decline. A recent visitor, in the form of a Pigeon Horntail, has clarified the situation like a visit from the Angel of Death.

  Horntails are large wasp like insects that lay their eggs in dying trees.  Females are known to prefer silver maples, ash, cottonwood, and elm and they seek weakened wood that is sufficiently low in moisture content. They do not bring about the death but simply take advantage of, and encourage, previously sickened trees. The horntails are so named because of the pointed stinger-like “horn” that terminates the end of their abdomens. This structure is not a stinger, however – the creatures are stingless.

  The mission of a visiting female is to deposit her eggs deep into the sapwood.  To accomplish this task she has a very long ovipositor with which to “sting” the wood. I watched the female slowly examine the surface of my tree before she finally settled on one location.   She raised the middle portion of her abdomen, un-sheathed her ovipositor, and directed its point at a right angle into the bark.  In essence, she sets herself up like an oil drilling rig (see photo above – note ovipositor pointing down from the center of the body and the sheath pointing back). Since the ovipositor has the consistency of a stiff hair, it seems near impossible that she could drill this thing into hardwood, but she can.

  I can best describe her technique by referring to the human action of running a plumber’s snake down a drain. You need to twist and turn one end in order to push the other end around the bends and curves of the pipe. This horntail performed the same action with her body as she drove the drill tip into the fine spaces of the wood fiber.  First a twist to the left (see here) and then a twist to the right (see here) drove the thing home. These creatures can penetrate solid wood up to 20 mm deep with nothing more than a robust hollow thread!

  Once the egg chamber is drilled, anywhere from 2-7 eggs are laid.  The female adds a hefty dose of a white rot fungus to the chamber – the spores of which are stored within two sacs located at the base of her ovipositor. This fungus accelerates the wood decay process and softens the wood for the hatchling larvae. Without it, the larvae can not survive.

  As the Horntail ended her egg-laying session, a process that took about 5 minutes, she clumsily fell to the ground.  Instead of seeking revenge upon the messenger, I helped her on her way. I carefully offered a twig for support and watched as she launched into a slow departing flight.

  Young Horntails take up to two years to mature. The wood munching larvae will eat tunnels into the sapwood and grow to be 2 inches in length before exiting the tree as adults.

  In a way, the Pigeon Horntail’s visit offered some assurance.  My Silver Maple will probably hang on for at least a few more years since it takes all of that to complete the larval growth process. Horntail females don’t invest in their future without some innate knowledge of the odds.

  Whether I will need to have a “vet” put my tree down before that time is the future I will need to ponder.

July 28, 2008

The Crack of the Bat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:22 pm

  To any baseball fan, one of the most satisfying sounds in the world is the resounding “crack” of a ball coming off of a home team bat. This is a sound that reverberates around the stadium and prompts the faithful to rise up and believe. Wooden baseball bats, however, are not the only bats that make warm summer nights sounds.  The mammalian bats of Michigan also fill the night with resonating tones.  In addition to being a Detroit Tigers fan, I also happen to be a big fan of the Microchiropteran Bats, and their sounds can bring me to my feet as quickly as any Louisville Slugger can.

  There are over 800 kinds of Microchiropteran bats in the world – the closer you get to the equator the more kinds there are.  We happen to have nine species that can be found in our state ranging from the tiny Pipistrelle to the bird-sized Red Bat. These bats all use echo-location to locate their food (the Megachiropterans, by the way, don’t).  

  Echo-location allows these night-flying creatures to literally “see with sound.”  They let out short sonar bursts and listen for the returning echoes to tell them about the landscape and prey species ahead of them. Since their hearing range is far above ours, most of their sounds are well above our capability to naturally detect them – a sound of silence you could say. Bats echolocate in the 20 to 200 kilohertz (kHz) range while we function in the 20 hertz to 15 kilohertz level.

  Last night, there being no Tiger game on, I ventured out into my backyard about a half hour after sunset to listen in on some bat noises. This is the prime time to see bats as they begin their night-time flight and the night sky is still bright enough for us to see them.  I was equipped with a Bat Detector – an electronic device that converts the high range bat noises into lower range human sounds. The detector can be tuned to species specific kHz levels and is a useful tool to “see” invisible bats with audible sound.

   It only took a few minutes before the detector lit up with sound. I dial-tuned the device and found that the noises were best heard the 29 KHz level (see above). This alone would be a good indication that the noise makers were probably Big Brown Bats, the most common bat in southern Michigan.  As soon as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see the ghostly forms flitting about overhead and indeed, they appeared to be Big Browns (see here- note the large ears).

  Unfortunately, the other thing that only took a few minutes to occur was the ascent of the mosquito hordes from the depths of hell. The detector was sensitive to the brushing sound of my hand whisking off blood-thirsty pests, so my audio results were compromised. I was able to stick it out just long enough to record a few of the echo-location sounds before lack of blood forced me inside.

  Listen to my recording (Recording) and you’ll hear what I heard. There were several bats flying about, so you are listening to several individuals taking turns in the air space above my head.  There is an amazing amount of information contained in those clicks and pings. The pulses are emitted through the mouth and nose at a noise level equivalent to a smoke alarm (110 decibels), but at such a high frequency we don’t sense it. Believe it or not, Big Browns are classified as “shouting bats” because of this.  

  Some of these calls are directional, but most are designed to pin down the location flying moths, beetles, and (theoretically) mosquitoes. Relative velocity, range, size, elevation and azimuth are the kinds of things that can be determined using sonar technique. In this series of calls, you’ll notice that the blips start off at an even pace and then get faster before cutting off. As the bat approaches an insect, their call rate is increased just before making the grab and going temporarily silent while they munch their prize – this is what you are hearing.

  Listening to this extremely short segment recording the capture of at least three insects, it is easy to see how bats are able to eat their body weight in bugs every night. There is another side to this aerial battle that we can not hear or spend enough time discussing. The insects themselves have developed an impressive array of defense tactics since they too are equipped with bat detectors. Some moths are covered with sound deadening “fur,” but others send back false signals or drop out of the sky as soon as they hear an approaching bat.

  I’m looking forward to spending some more summer nights listening for the crack of the bat.

July 25, 2008

Nature Ain’t Necessarily Natural

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:09 pm

  It might seem natural to expect Black Swallowtail Butterflies to emerge from Black Swallowtail Chrysalids. Given three identical crysalids, “made” by three identical swallowtail larvae, the odds are even better that three butterflies would emerge. I had three such potential packages awaiting delivery this week. Nature ain’t necessarily natural, however. Three large orange wasps emerged instead (see above).

  My swallowtail larvae & chrysalids were parasitized by a species of wasp known as the Trogus Ichneumon Wasp. Ichneumons make their living off of other creatures and they specialize in certain types. The Trogus wasps zero in on swallowtail butterfly larvae and they appear to do un-natural things to their victims. In short, the wasp maggots develop inside the unsuspecting host and eventually kill them, eat them from the inside out, and then emerge from their hollowed out shells. All that is left of the original butterfly chrysalis is the empty casing with a massive hole in one side (see here). This is all perfectly natural.

  It is estimated that 20%-40% of butterfly and moth pupae (crysalids in the case of butterflies) fall victim to parasites like the ichneumons. The process begins with an egg laid inside a young caterpillar by the female wasp. Ichneumons, the term means “tracker” in Greek, hunt down their hosts by using a finely developed sense of smell. They are attracted to the scent of leaves damaged by feeding caterpillars – deducing in their tiny wasp noggins that where damage exists the damagers can’t be far behind. Once located, the female inserts her needle-like egg laying tube (ovipositor) into the soft bodied host and deposits a single egg. She then resumes her search for fresh fare.

   When the egg is laid, the female ichneumon adds a dose of Polydnavirus for good measure. This virus immediately infects the surrounding cells and essentially tells the caterpillar’s immune system to ignore this intrusion. The wasp maggot hatches and begins to eat all the non-essential internal parts of the swallowtail larva which, by the way, continues to grow as if nothing is wrong. 

  By the time the caterpillar enters into the chrysalis stage, it is more maggot than caterpillar (“twisted and evil”).  Once settled into this stage, the wasp maggot is no longer bound to keep its host alive so it consumes the rest of the innards before entering into its own pupal stage.  Two weeks later, the adult wasp emerges and exits via a custom made port hole (a closer view here).

  In case you are wondering why the wasps in my hand are dead, I decided to freeze them for the benefit of recording their appearance. These are active beasts that don’t photograph well. I admit there might have been a little bit of come-uppance on my part as well. Sure, I was witness to a perfectly natural occurrence, but I admit to being slightly peeved and felt it was perfectly natural for me to claim the final word in this scenario.

July 23, 2008

A Stag Survivor

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:28 pm

  I found a reddish brown colored stag beetle underneath a porch light yesterday morning. It was pretty beat up – missing a few feet, suffering from a shell dent, and still dragging an extended wing tip out from under the wing covers (see another view here).  No doubt it had recently engaged in combat with a bird. Stag beetles are naturally attracted to night lights and are revealed to potential predators at dawn’s early light.  To say that this tough little creature “won” the tussle might be a stretch, but it definitely made sure that it’s predator never met up to its potential.

  A little research on the wounded veteran revealed that it was, believe it or not, called a Reddish Brown Colored Stag Beetle.  The orangish color of the upper legs (see here) and single “tooth” on the jaws are enough to put that name to this particular face.

  All stag beetles are endowed with impressive “pincers,” and this one sported a quite a pair (see above).  These are better called mandibles, but could be called horns because the translated species name means “small goat.” The beetles in this group are generally known as stag beetles because their mandibles look like stag (deer) antlers. This individual is a male. The females have much smaller jaws. As formidable as these male appendages are, they are meant more to intimidate fellow stag beetles than to deliver crushing bites. Males wrestle each other for mating sites and the honor of delivering the first pick-up lines at arriving females.  I guess you could call these wrestling matches Stag parties.

  When all the mating hoopla is done, these battling beasts feed on tree sap. Tell me that isn’t a surprising choice of fare for such a well armed warrior! 

  Now, I didn’t put this guy in my palm just to talk about his mandibles. I’d like to give you an opportunity to take a closer look at a few other features. Take those antennae, for instance (see here in this underside view).  The end segments on each antenna are flattened into platelets – structures called lamellae. Note also how the eyes wrap around to provide a downward glance (or, in this case, an upward glance). Finally, give an appreciative ogle at the wonderful texture and fit on the hard exo-skeleton plates.

  This external skeleton is better on some insects than others, but beetles definitely have the heaviest armor in the micro kingdom. There is no question that this plating defined the fine edge between life and death for this beetle. Incredibly, stags are reported to live two years as adults thanks to their sturdy casing.

  I set the survivor down in the grass and watched it limp off at a slow but steady pace. It will live to do battle another day.

July 21, 2008

Don’t Touchel the Teasel

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:08 pm

  The Common Teasel is a plant that needs to be handled lightly, but not taken lightly. These towering plants are just beginning their flowering stage in late July. Their beautiful lavender flowers, artfully arranged on decorative cone-like heads, might seem like candidates for the flower vase but the potential arranger should be aware of the danger. Teasel plants bristle with stout spiny armor. Un-gloved hand contact is not recommended unless you are the kind that sleeps on a bed of nails. Take a good look at the photo above and you’ll see what I mean.

  Normally, I wouldn’t even hint at a suggestion that any wildflower should be cut and vased, but this plant is a tough customer. It is an alien invader hailing from Europe, Asia and Africa that has the real potential to choke out our native plants. So, go ahead and cut away and don’t forget those industrial strength gardening gloves. The dried seed heads are equally as attractive, by the way, and equally as spiny.   

  It would be a mistake to think that the teasel is a totally worthless plant. After all, we humans brought it to North America in the first place. Someone once thought it was worth the effort. The dried seed heads of Common Teasel, also known as Fuller’s Teasel, were used by textile manufacturers to treat woolen cloth. Strapped and stacked onto a wooden “teasel gigs,” multiple spiny heads were drawn by hand or attached to rotating cylinders.  The flexible, but stiff, spines firmly plucked at the cloth and raised the nap without tearing it. Steel or iron spikes were too harsh to perform this duty.

  This once helpful plant soon became an anachronism in human society as textile manufacturing advanced beyond the old ways.  The teasels (there are several species) did not disappear with the old ways and are now more common than ever. They are plants without purpose, however, and thus relegated to weed status.   

   One of the unique features displayed by this stout plant is the manner in which it blooms. While most plants with multiple flower-heads bloom in sequence from top to bottom or vice-versa, Teasels bloom from the middle out. The blooms begin as a purple belt (look above) which divides as the flowers work their way toward the ends. You can see (in this view) that the flowers in the center of this cluster are already turning brown as the newer marginal blooms emerge. If filmed in time lapse, the sequence would look like a sparkler that was lit in the middle (I used to do this all the time because it doubled the “spark” effect).

  Although the flowers are getting all the attention here, it is worth a downward glance to note how the leaves attach at the stem on this plant (see here). The leaves are stemless and opposite.  They join together to form a cup that often holds a pool of rain water. Dipsacus, the Greek name for the teasel group, means “to drink” and refers to this feature. I wouldn’t do what the name suggests.

July 18, 2008

Promethea’s Patterns & Perfumes

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:47 pm


  If you’ve been following this blog, you have been subjected to multiple exposures to that wonderful group of insects known as the Giant Silk Moths.  Because these big beauties are all named after Greek gods, you’ve also gotten a hefty dose of mythology along with it. Let me warn you, then, that you are about to get one more turn at the mega-moth table. I’ve had good luck this year in finding the cocoons of both Polyphemus and Cecropia Moths and both have emerged out into glorious adults. Well, good things come in threes.  I found the dangling cocoon of a Promethea Moth at the Petersburg Game Area last week and now it too has emerged.

  The Promethea Moth (see here) is a relative midget in the Giant Silk Moth clan yet ironically it is named after a Greek Titan – a giant. As part of one of the dumber myths in the Grecian myth treasury, Promethea gained fame by cracking Zeus up side the head with a rock. This action, believe it or not, was performed in order to rid Zeus of his headaches!  Somehow Athena popped out of the big god’s head upon delivery of the blow and his headaches were cured. Although I am not making this up, I’m sure some Greek suffering from a case of blunt force trauma did.

  The real moth named after the mythical giant, is worthy of a mythical title – no matter how stupid the namesake might be. Artistically, it is a gem of creation as the detail view above (and this view here) illustrates. A detailed look at the wings of one of these newly emerged beauties reveals a subtle patterning of scales and the obligatory “eye” spots found on most silk moths.     

  This specimen is a female. Her reddish coloration, V-markings, and plump abdomen are sure indicators of this. Males of the species are smaller, dark purple brown, and have light tan wing borders. Unlike most moths, these scaled down titans are active during the day which allows us to get a peek at some of the unique behavior that brings the boys and girls together. Actually the behavior is not unique; it’s just that we can see what’s going on during the daylight hours.

  The first job of a freshly emerged Promethea female is to attract a mate by releasing sex pheromones into the air. To do so, she dangles down from the end of the cocoon and extends a brush-like organ out of her posterior. Take a look here and you can see this scent wand. She will occasionally waft the thing back and forth to distribute the perfume into the air stream. The males can detect these pheromones from as much as 7 miles away and will hone in on the target and come a-court’n.

  All of this takes place in the late afternoon from around 4 pm until sunset.  By the time the Prometheas pack it in for the night, all of the other moths are just getting started. As of this writing, my female hasn’t attracted any suitors yet and the sun is going down.  I’m pretty sure she’ll get her man after I release her tomorrow. Her perfume will end up hitting some guy moth up side the head like a rock.

July 16, 2008

Shoo Fly Don’t …Ouch!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:44 pm

  I’d like you to know that I took a hit for the team. Yes, when a Deer Fly landed on my hand I reached for the camera rather than swatting it away. I figured that I’d do a Naturespeak piece about them for the sake of my two readers out there – the team, as it were. Before I could finish the shot, the thing drove its saber-like beak home. I held on just long enough to make double sure that I’d gotten the shot and then creamed it.

  These troublesome flies are worse than mosquitoes when it comes to biting human flesh. Their bites elicit far more blood flow than their smaller brethren (mosquitoes are flies also) and they make a habit of sneaking down into your hair before biting.  They take up their biting gauntlet in open sunny places, where the ‘skeeters dare not tread, and they are not affected by the usual repellants. We “sapiens” are not alone, however, in suffering their assaults.  You will be satisfied in knowing that they make their main living off of livestock and other wild mammals such as deer. They aren’t called Deer flies for nothing.

 On that note, I was startled the other day by a bounding White-tail fawn that careened into a grassy clearing just ahead of me. The spotted beast was being harassed by some deer flies and made its entrance into the clearing at break neck speed. It slammed on the brakes momentarily – giving me just enough time to take a photo (see here). Note the wild look in her eyes. Right after I took this shot, she jumped straight up into the air, ran around in a tight circle, and then took off in another zig-zag sprint. It paused long enough to look in my direction and she then leapt back into the undergrowth from whence she came.  As you may know by now, I’m for anything that torments deer, but I felt a twinge of sympathy for the little gal.  I felt her pain, you could say.

  To put the record straight, male Deer Flies are not the ones to blame in this matter. The adult males do not share the sanguine needs of the female. They feed on pollen, as a matter of fact. It is the female half that requires a blood meal and therefore seeks warm-blooded donations. This is why they possess a set of knife blades for a mouth.  When a lady fly lands on the victim’s skin it employs these tools in the manner of an old-style lancet. One quick slice prompts a small pool of blood to form and the fly laps it up. She is then free to lay her fertilized eggs in the moist soil next to a marsh or pond where the hatchling larvae grow up eating dirt (actually, they eat the organic material in the dirt).

  Researchers aren’t sure how Deer flies find their victims, but they’ve “narrowed” it down to an attraction for movement, shiny surfaces, Carbon Dioxide and warmth.  That pretty well covers the whole picture doesn’t it? So, if you stop breathing and moving you’ve increased your chances by 50% that a hungry fly won’t find you. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about the warm-blooded thing. 

  By the way, next time you successfully swat a Deer Fly into the afterlife, stop a moment to admire her eyes before tossing her aside. These flies are characterized by wildly patterned green and gold eyes (see here). Those funkadelic shades give them a slightly crazed look that mimics the look of their tormented victims.

July 14, 2008

Jeepers Creepers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:46 pm


Because there are so many eye-popping insects to choose from, it is almost un-fair to limit this discussion to only two of them.  But, since life in general isn’t fair, I feel no particular guilt in making a purely personal selection here. I present, therefore, a baby butterfly and a beetle for your curious consideration.  Take a peek at either a larval Spicebush Swallowtail or an adult Dogbane Beetle and you’ll find something staring right back at you.  In the case of the second beast, the face staring back will be a very familiar one.

  The adult version of the Spicebush Swallowtail is a handsome dark butterfly with a wash of electric blue on its back wings. This species is known by the Latin name of Papilio troilus. The latter half of the name refers to a character of Greek legend known as Troilus – a person known as the “paragon of youthful male beauty.”  This young fellow was slain by that heel Achilles and the dastardly act is depicted on the decorative panels of many Grecian Urns.

  I bring this up because the caterpillar of this butterfly bears a striking resemblance to the Troilus of old. Take a look at this image – the kid is the one on the horse. Look at his eyes and then look at the picture of his namesake larva shown above. See what I mean?  As an additional layer of similarity, both Troilus’s “urn eye” and the caterpillar’s “back eyes” are merely artistic depictions of eyes. Those larval eyes are not real and, since the Grecian youth is merely a figment of legend, his eyes were never real to begin with.

  Spicebush larvae resort to trickery as a means of survival.  The caterpillars possess those fake Greek eyes on their backs in order to startle potential predators.  During the day they hide themselves within the protective folds of a leafy taco.  They feed on Sassafras and Spicebush plants and deliberately draw together the leaf edges with silk to form a larval chamber (see here).  Coming out at night to feed, they rest within the chamber by day. If an inquisitive bird opens the flap it will be startled by the sudden appearance of a pair of bright eyes. On top of this, this is another one of those caterpillars that have a forked stink horn (called an osmetrium) that everts out from behind their head when alarmed. This act, combined with the eye thing, makes the caterpillar look more like a snake with a forked tongue than the juicy edible insect that it is. The whole effect is disturbing enough to frighten away meek hearted enemies who are heard to declare “Jeepers Creepers where’d you get those Peepers?” as they flee.

  The second eye-popper to consider is the Dogbane Beetle (see here). I encountered a few of these brilliant beetles just a few feet away from the lair of the Spicebush caterpillar.  They are a common insect, but restricted to places where Dogbane, or Indian Hemp, grows (see one on food plant here). To say this insect is a living jewel is an understatement.  Even taxonomists had to perform double speak when naming this one – Chrysochus auratus, their Latin name, could literally be translated as “Golden-gilded Gold” Bug.  

  To be fair about it, this particular bug is a member of a family of beetles called leaf beetles and all members of this group bear the “Gold-gilded” pre-fix label. It’s just that this one is really special, I guess.  To be un-fair about it, however, gold is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking at the bright reflective colors found on the creature’s wing covers. As you can see it’s a wonderful mix of metallic blue, green, violet, and a hint of gold that meets the eye. These creatures make no attempt to conceal themselves and they bear their splendor proudly.

  Look very closely at the picture you’ll notice my reflection in the shell (see here). The image is a fish-eyed image of me. I was wearing a white shirt that day and you can plainly see me, my shirt, and a contorted view of my face with a camera in front of it. So, the face looking back at me from the back of this insect was my own – an image equally as scary as the fake snake on the caterpillar.

July 11, 2008

A Meander at Munson

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:37 pm

A sticky mid-summer mid-day isn’t normally the best time to go nature meandering. Most sane creatures are seeking the shelter of shade at that time and aren’t easy to find.  For a variety of reasons, however, that was the only time I had available for my investigation of the nature trail at Munson Park. I embarked on the journey with an eye open to whatever nature offered. As usual, I was not disappointed – mostly.

  To call this new trail a “meander” is a gross understatement – it is more like a labyrinth.  The field portion is straight enough, but the wooded portion bears a striking resemblance to the maze once inhabited by the Minotaur. It winds a drunkard’s path through a dense woodlot and tricks you into believing that you are “almost there” at least a dozen times. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me except that a cloud of mosquitoes were taking the same exact path as I was. I must admit my load was lightened somewhat due to blood loss and the fact that I was carried aloft by the helpful little beasts at certain points.  Now that I have my complaining out of the way, let me show you a few of the things I found along the way.

  Before entering the deep dark wood, a Common Yellowthroat announced itself in the nearby thistles.  These summer warblers are more often heard than seen.  Their ventriloquistic “witchity witchity” calls often ring out from the dense vegetation without offering any clue as to the whereabouts of the maker. This bird was patrolling the open field edge and showed itself on a number of occasions. Take a look at the picture above. I call this composition “Common Yellowthroat on Sow Thistle in the Presence of Queen Anne’s Lace.”  The title just seemed right; I don’t know it just hit me.

  This next shot (see here) I call “A Yellowthroat Getting Ready to put Something into His Throat.”  The bird was sulking through the thistle bed seeking insects and came up with what looked to be a moth.  It had clipped the wings and was preparing the morsel for consumption. Actually, I believe the care package was delivered to some un-seen young in an un-seen nest in a nearby seen scrub thicket.  My title is probably incorrect, but so what.

  In the deep woods, my attention was distracted by several things other than mosquitoes.

  An American Toad stood guard on a muddy section of the trail. The thing was motionless, so I was able to focus in for a shot. I call this picture “An American Toad Blending into the Muddy Trail Backgound”  because it is and it does. There are two kinds of toads in Michigan: The American and the Woodhouse’s Toad.  It is worth pointing out that this one was definitely an American Toad due to several identifying features. First of all, there were no wood houses nearby and secondly, this picture was taken in America.  The most important point, however, is that it had 3 or less “warts” in each dark “wart cluster” on it’s back. The latter point is, of course, the only point that matters.  Toads do not have “warts,” nor do they give them away, but that is the term commonly applied to describe those skin bumps.

  About ten feet away from the guardian toad, I found an Oak Apple Gall and picked it up for a closer look (see here). As would be expected by their name, these round structures form along the mid-rib of an oak leaf and are caused by a tiny wasp.  When the wasp, impossibly called Biorhiza pallida by those Latin-spouting types, lays an egg in the developing oak leaf, the tree reacts by creating a tumor-like swelling around the developing larva. By mid summer, the larvae pupates and exits the apple gall as an adult wasp – at which point the structure falls to earth.

  An internal view (see here) reveals the fascinating structure of the empty larval chamber. You can see that there is a central pod suspended by a network of tendrils. The whole arrangement is very alienesque, if you ask me. Go ahead, ask me. What? Yes, I think it is a “War of the Worlds” kind of thing. There is a single exit hole chewed into the pod and another chewed through the skin of the “apple” (look midway on the left side) where the beast escaped its tiny universe. You might be interested in knowing that I call this last picture “The Universe Within.”

  I finally escaped the dark wood in a flurry of hand waves and re-entered the sun world out in the field. There I encountered a bunch of Clouded Sulphur butterflies doing their best to keep a fair distance from me.  I cornered one under the cover of some clover (see here). Sulphers get their name from the yellow color that typifies members of the family.  Some, like this one, are very light and show little of the sulphur hue.  This one tends more to a greenish shade with a few pink underarm spots (deodorant stains, no doubt).  One of the features that I find most striking about sulphurs are their wild emerald green eyes.

  In doing a little research on these butterflies, I came upon a Canadian coin that uses the image of a Clouded Sulphur (take a look). The picture on the coin looks surprisingly like the picture I just showed you, if you asked me.  Go ahead ask me again. What? Yes, even in the aspect that there is a clover depicted next to it.

  On the way out of the field I paused to contemplate a plant that I used to called the “Indian Money Plant” when I was little (seen here as “Indian Money at Munson” ). The real name is Curly Dock. This time of year the seed heads mature into clusters of rusty-colored plumes that contrast with the rest of the green landscape. If you wrap your hand around the base of one of these plants and pull upwards, you’ll come up with a palm full of that “Indian money.” A closer look reveals that these three winged seeds look just like buckwheat – that old style plant of pancake fame. Docks are in the buckwheat family, by the way.

  So, there you have it – a meandering commentary on a meandering walk without the blood letting.


July 9, 2008

It’s Thistle Bird Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:31 pm

  The Canada Thistle is considered a noxious weed by most humans. It is, after all, one of those alien imports that out-competes our native plants and tends to take over whenever it shows up in the neighborhood. Technically, however, there is no such thing as a “weed.”  There is no weed family in the plant world.  Thistles happen to be in  the Composite family alongside such benign entities as sunflowers, daisies and goldenrods. “Weed” is an un-official term that simply refers to plants growing where we don’t want them to. It is a purely subjective, and very human, label. 

  Actually, it is a bit unfair to call this plant the Canada Thistle in the first place. I mean, they are from Europe, not Canada, and Canadians are nice people, eh. Also, keep in mind that badmouthing thistles might raise the ire of your neighborhood Scotsman. Canada Thistles are not Scottish Bull Thistles, but close enough to be considered part of the clan.  Given that there are a lots of Scots in Canada, we best be careful aboot what we’re say’n here.        

  But, national pride matters aside, the purple flowered plants are not on everyone’s “bad” list. Goldfinches, for instance, are not bound by human labels. These black and yellow sprites do not divide thistles into “good” and “bad” categories – to them all thistles are good. The Canada Thistles are going to seed now (see here) and the birds are in their now in their glory time.

  You’ve got to understand that these finches don’t just love thistles, they live for thistles. Considering that they eat the seeds and line their nests with their silky fibers, it is no surprise that they are better known as thistle birds.  I’m sure that one day we’ll discover that goldfinches even dream about thistles (they probably have walking dreams too). To top it all off, they even put off having kids until the thistles go to seed.  Yes, Goldfinches wait until the thistle crop reaches maturity in mid summer before they even think about nesting.  Most other birds have completed one nesting cycle and are well into their second brood by now. 

  Over the last few days, I’ve had a chance to watch a few goldfinches do their thing. They are a skittish lot and even when engrossed in “thistleing” are difficult to approach. I was able to snap a few pictures before being discovered. This individual (see above) is a fine looking male caught in the moment that he realized he was being watched.  When alarmed or alerted, the birds often erect the black part of their crown like a tiny crest, and this one was off in a flash after the shot was taken. His female, should he have one yet, would be much more subtle in coloration – being greenish in order to better blend in to her surroundings.

  I came upon another male finch still in the throws of thistle picking (see here). Thistle seeds are each attached to a cone of silk which looks very much like a badminton birdie. The rice-sized seeds are attached at to a core (just like the arrangement found on another “weed,” the dandelion). The real birdies dive into the fluff in order to detach the seed from the core and nip off the fluff part of the imitation birdie. This extra fluff floats away from the feeding bird like a string of soft summer clouds.

  Goldfinches emit a series of wandering “tee tee tee” notes as they bounce from seed head to seed head like kids in a candy store. “Thistle do it for now” is a possible human translation of that call.

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