Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 29, 2008

Do You Think I Look Fat?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:22 pm

  Last month I was a speaker at a regional gathering of master gardeners.  My theme was a general approach to the natural history of the fall season. As part of my spiel, I presented the lowly woodchuck as one type of creature that spends the fall season preparing for winter hibernation. I moved on to other topics and eventually opened the thing up for questions. One gal, way up in the top row of seats, posed a simple question that stumped me for longer than it should have. “Mr. Wykes,” she inquired, “can you name one thing that woodchucks are good for?”  Knowing that these earthy members of the squirrel family are the arch enemy of all gardeners, I should have been prepared for such a challenge.

  I firmly believe that there are no bad plants or animals – only plants or animals in bad places. This means that “bad” fauna or flora are victims of circumstances. Weeds, for instance, are simply plants growing where they are not wanted.  Well, my immediate response regarding the woodchuck should have been on an equal keel to my definition of a weed, but I paused before giving my answer.  This set up an ominous chuckle among the assembled green thumbs before me as if I was confirming their perception of what must surely be a worthless beast. 

  “O.K., here’s one good thing,” I finally retorted.  “Woodchuck hides make good shoelaces.”  This answer hit the right spot with this group because of the obvious necessity of killing the chuck in order to get the hide, but it also raised many a quizzical eyebrow. Living woodchucks have incredibly tough skins. This fact, combined with their ability to turn around within their skins and land some viscous bites, makes them formidable foes when attacked.  In a deadly slapdown between a dog and a woodchuck, the outcome is never certain. Chuck skin is not impervious to human propelled lead, however. So when one was “removed’ from the garden in this manner it was often skinned and the tanned hide rendered into shoelaces. The laces were cut out of the skin as a spiral in order to get the proper lengths.

  Folks don’t make chuck shoe strings anymore as far as I know, but you might want to revive the tradition next time you see a dead one along the road.

  My shoelace response was only a stalling effort to come up with something genuinely enviable and good about woodchucks. Sure, they are personable – one chuck has more personality than five fox squirrels – but this means little to those who’d rather interview them with a tire or shotgun. The whole hibernation thing, now that’s something to think about. When asked if the audience would see favor with curling up to sleep through the entire winter, there were some head nods. No shoveling, driving on ice, and such. Woodchucks are one of a very select group of animals that can do this. Even bears can’t do this (they don’t hibernate).

  The best part, and may I say the clincher to my pro-chuck argument, is that these animals are required to eat like pigs and are required to get fat.  What say you humans to that, eh? Let’s forget for the moment that they are eating your garden plants, and focus on the reality that a skinny woodchuck is a dead woodchuck. Hibernation requires a lot of fat reserves.  For a brief moment many in the group could see some small comfort in a world without diets and their eyes momentarilty lost focus and gazed upward.

    Woodchucks literally become groundhogs over the course of the autumn. They will eat the leafy part of any green plant (see here) and take special delight in munching on acorns (see here this creature doing just such a thing). Records indicate that a typical animal can eat over a pound and a half of food daily. All this effort is geared to that late October/early November day when the time comes to enter the winter den and begin to live off that fat for a few months.

  I believe I left that group with at least a grain of admiration for Garden Enemy No. 1. I also left them with the following thought: When asked by the woodchuck wife if she looks fat, Mr. Chuck had better say “Yes” if he knows what is good for him.  Now that’s an alternate universe. Before somebody gets on me about writing a pro-fat piece, let me qualify my presentation with an acknowledgement that chucks don’t live very long and that even skinny people don’t live in holes.

October 27, 2008

Puff Muffin

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:14 pm


  ‘Tis the season for kicking puffballs. You can also whack them with sticks or hurl stony missiles at them, but you simply shouldn’t ignore them. At this late seasonal stage they are full of powdery pleasures and this feature elevates them well above their fellow fungi – at least from a human perspective. Other fungi are uni-dimensional when it comes to sapien entertainment value. Morals and Pinkbottoms can only provide food value, Inkycaps can only disgust you, and Death Angels can only kill you, for instance.  Puffballs can feed you, entertain you, amaze you, and make you wish you were dead. All of these traits are packed into one giant sphere of goodness.

  Puffballs magically appear out of the ground in late summer like so many Marshmallow Man eggs. The balls, actually fruiting bodies, originate out of a mass of rootlike threads in the soil and grow rapidly. True Puffballs have no stems or stalks but they do have a tenuous connection to the ground. Even so, they look like they are sitting on the soil rather than issuing from it. They can grow to impressive proportions. Many will attain watermelon size and there are records of puffers reaching 44 pounds in weight.

  Fresh puffballs are edible. They can be sliced like a ham and the slabs fried with butter, garlic, and a pinch of salt.  I’ve eaten them a number of times and found them quite delicious – if you like mushrooms that is. Watch out for those false puffballs – those with a hidden stems – that are not edible (“beware of puffballs bearing stems”). 

  Determining when a puffball is suitable to eat, according to a fungal website (, is simple : “When the basiocarp is young you can do a section through the gleba and observe the glebal chambers, which are lined with basidia and basidiospores…the gleba disintegrates as the spores darken and mature.” Simple, eh? O.K., well, in non-fungal terms this means that a young fresh puffer will have a light skin covering a solid white interior. Cut through the thing and the whole interior should appear solid and white. As soon as the mushroom is past prime, it will darken as the spores start to mature. According to an old friend who has done it, eating a slightly over-ripe puffer is like eating a mushroom soaked in urine (he did not say “urine” but inserted a four letter word in its place). 

  Should you go to the above website, by the way, I invite you to check out the section titled “Fun with Calvatia giant puffballs.” There you will see people having fun with fungus and learn how a sizable puffball can become an acceptable butt substitute!

  By the time I shot these pictures of my backyard puffball in September (see here and here) it was already past prime.  Puffballs normally disintegrate into a papery bag of dusty spores in the late autumn months. Their skin peels off and the tiny brown spores – up to several trillion – are released into the air.  I could not resist the urge to help this process along via the rapid introduction of a stick. I captured the resulting explosion in the picture above.

  Should you have the urge to perform a similar act of helpful vandalism, I need to provide you with a few words of caution. First of all, make sure you are striking a puffball and not a dirty soccerball. Secondly, don’t inhale the spores. Apparently the spores can make you sick if you inhale a whole cloud of them. Use a long stick and make sure you are upwind when whacking puffballs. These are wise words for you to heed if you want a long life filled with puffball-tainment.

October 25, 2008

Fight’n Words

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:35 pm

A Northern Water Snake was the last creature I expected to see out on a frigid late October day. Sunning itself on the rocks of Fighting Island in the Detroit River, however, was a dusty dark specimen of the sort (see above).  The day was approaching the noon hour and the sun’s comforting rays were about as comfortable as they would ever get. The creature was soaking up some of that radient comfort. These snakes are dubbed as “Northerns” for good reason because they are found throughout the north country region – including the Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale. But, the time is fast approaching for even the hardiest of reptiles to seek winter shelter.

  This individual was understandibly slow to react. It only mustered up a glacial creep toward the shore as it was approached.  Normally, water snakes are not so willing to yield up their piece of ground.  They are, in fact, feisty beyond the measure of most snakes. A mid-summer approach to this guy would have potentially produced a dramatic bit of hissing, head-flattening, striking, and – if the opportunity presented itself – biting.

  Even though they are often mistaken by the ignorant as Water Moccasins or Cottonmouths, Water Snakes are not venomous. Thier venomous act is meant to intimidate. Sometimes the thing is carried off too well and the performer is whacked to pieces by the audience.  Truth is, they have a lot of tiny sharp teeth and can pack a heavy bite.  This is a necessity for catching frogs, fish, and tadpoles that make up their diet. Their salivia contains an anti-coagulant so their bite marks will bleed like crazy when a human is the recipient of the blow.  Take a look at the Minnesota site and scroll down to the fourth picture and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Look at the bloody hands of the fellow holding up the snake for the picture.  I think you’ll agree that the streaming blood definately takes away from the subject.

  Not all water snakes are irritable.  Some individuals are downright puppy-like. This behaviour variability extends to their general appearance as well.  No two Northern Water Snakes look alike.

  The Fighting Island individual was large and dark.  Older snakes tend to be darker than younger ones.  Take a close look at his eyes (see here) and you’ll see that they are milky white.  This is a sign that the snake is getting ready to shed its skin – which explains his worn out dusty appearance. Underneath that old skin is a clean dark gray animal.

  As a species, these snakes range from a light ashy gray to nearly black. The only common element among them is the presence of dark bands from head to tail. I am fortunate enough to be in possession of one of those puppy-like individuals who also happens to be one of the prettiest examples of his kind that I have ever seen.  Take a peek here, here, and here to see just how spectacular a Northern Water Snake can be.  Note the “keeled scales” (having a ridge down the center of each scale) and the wonderfully checkered belly.  Also, note that there is no blood on my hands!

  I left the Fighting Island snake to finish his solar therapy. When his time comes he will enter deep into one of the rock crevasses and hibernate. Technically, herpetologists would remind us that he will actually enter into “estivation.”  This is a special term for cold-blooded critters which means the same as hibernation but with a twist. But, let’s not haggle and turn these into fight’n words. One does not quibble when on Fighting Island.

October 22, 2008

Seed for Thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:43 pm


The dry wispy sound of windblown cattail stalks is as much a part of the autumn landscape as the more familiar shuffle of tree leaves. To hear this sound you’ve got to put yourself close to the wetland habitat where they grow and lend a patient ear. Although a few clustered ditch plants will do, it is best to take in an entire symphony of them along one of our coastal marshes. I think you’ll find the sound somewhat comforting and reassuring (listen here to Cattails Talking). These plants have grown from mud level to nearly twelve feet tall in a matter of a few short months. They have expressed the earth’s wealth through their productive greenness and now are  entering their equally productive second stage. No, their season is not ended, it has turned face. The wind is there to remind you of this fact.

   The long slender leaves stole every bit of the reflective space next to the dense stands and lorded over the marsh. Now the leaves are browning, shrinking, and curling down in obeyance to the late season – their crucial starches being recalled back to the mother root (aka rhizome). In their new role, they will provide cover for wildlife as arching shelters. Snow cover will eventually shingle the leafy arches and the frozen water beneath them will become the floor over which mice, mink, rabbits, pheasants and a whole host of creatures will tread while seeking refuge.

  When the hot dog like seed heads were developing over the latter half of the summer, the stalks that bore them were dwarfed by the surrounding leaves.  Each head contains 100,000 to 260,000 plus seeds packed into a brown sausage spike. The actual seeds, only about 1 mm long a piece, are attached to the inner stem and are equipped with silky down.  Now that the leaves are fading, the mature seed heads project above the canopy and into the wind.  The stiff breezes are beginning to pull them apart and the seeds are carried aloft on their downy parachutes.

  The disrobing of the cattail heads is a long slow striptease that will last through to next spring.  During this early phase of the performance large chunks of cattail down will peel away like sheep wool during a shearing. Later on, the process becomes sporadic – requiring stiffer and stiffer winds in order to yield.  Most of these seeds land on the open water and collect on the surface in such a way as to give the water an icy look (see here).  This fuzzy ice will soon enough give way to the real thing and the seeds will sink.

  Someone once calculated that there are approximately 500,000,000 pounds of cat-tail down in the United States (“Estimated” is certainly an understatement here). Since the seeds are about 40% of that weight, this means that there are an awful heavy lot of seeds being spread to the four winds across this land of ours. Very very very few of these will germinate, but a few will make their attempt next spring.

  To get a cattail to grow from seed, it has to be saturated in water, surrounded by mucky soil, and receive a lot of sunlight. Those that don’t grow right away haven’t lost hope, however, because they can survive in the soil for decades.  One source indicates that that viability can be as long as a century. 

  The dead leaves will remain in place at least until the Red-winged Blackbirds return in March. The female Red-wings use the leaves to weave their nests. The cattail season, you see,  never really ends.

October 20, 2008

Butter Please, Not Margarine

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:22 pm

  The Yellow-rumped Warbler may be the most common warbler species in North America, but the chance to view one up close and personal should not be slighted.  My chance was afforded by a confrontation between a window and a warbler in which the glass proved to be the victor. Fortunately, the bird’s glass encounter was a glancing blow and therefore not fatal. The affair left her in a temporarily loopy state. I scooped it up (see above) just as the cobwebs were clearing.

  Yellow-rumps are one of the dozens of warbler species that pass through the region in the fall migration. Fall warblers are notorious for their non-descript non-breeding coloration (thus the section in the Peterson Guide labeled “confusing fall warblers”).  Even in her dull autumn wrappings, however, this bird is easy to identify because of the brilliant yellow rump (see here) and the splash of yellow on the sides of the breast. There are three other yellow-bottomed fall warblers but they are mere margarine when compared to this one. Many folks simply refer to the Yellow-rumps as “butterbutts” to save effort and time.

  Unlike their fellow warblers who pass through quickly, the butter birds tend to linger later into the season. Some even elect to over winter here.   They can do such a thing because they are “diet switchers.” This doesn’t mean chosing lowfat over chocolate, but instead means switching from an insect diet to vegetarian fare. That’s not an easy thing to do.  They can exploit a variety of plant resources and stomach hard to digest foods such as waxy fruit and poison ivy berries.

  It might seem odd to us humans, but the white, wrinkled fruit of the Poison Ivy vine is actually one of the preferred winter foods of this bird. A good crop of these berries often determines how long wintering yellow-rumps will stick around. Should the winter food crop fail, these birds have the where-with-all to move further south. This trait is not common among most migrant birds who are usually bound by instinct to live (or die) with their chosen winter location. Butterbutts can, and will, move along.

  The woods and thickets are now brimming with these little dynamos. Most are still feeding on insects (this one was picking spiders under the eaves). They flit about in small flocks while constantly talking to each other. Listen here to the constant chatter of a group of butterbottoms (Yellow-rump Chatter)– you’ll note the constant “t-check, t-check” call.

  After a few minutes, the bird in my hand was not uttering gentle “t-checks.” It had recovered to the point where her calls had morphed into some angry avian profanity. I opened my hand to release her and she remained in place long enough for me to take one last portrait (see here). She finally launched back into the bush to join her fellow birds-a wiser bird with a headache and a long cold season ahead.

October 18, 2008

Carpe Carpio

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:50 pm

  Every year at this time, Ma Erie pulls the plug and Lake levels drop by a half a foot or so. The phenomenon appears to be unrelated to the overall lake levels as expressed throughout the previous summer. It is as if a drain plug is pulled and then quickly replaced. No, I don’t think the government has anything to do with it – if this were so it wouldn’t happen with such precision! “The Gods” don’t do it because Zeus and Poseidon don’t deal with fresh water (it’s in their contract). Let’s just say that it happens and move on.

  All of this wasted verbiage is simply to confirm that the local coastal marshes also drain when the lake does its late season drawdown. When a shoreline marsh lowers, aquatic life is squeezed into a smaller space as the bottom muck approaches the surface. Fish are especially put to the test when this happens. Not only are they forced to contend with warmer, lower oxygen water but, by crowding, they become the figurative fish that are easily shot in a barrel.  The shooters in this case are usually Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets armed with lances instead of lead. The autumn marshes are packed with both species looking for a fattening experience.

  Recently, a multitude of young carp found themselves in just such a shallow water situation (see here and here). These fry hatched out earlier in the summer and have now attained a few inches in size. At this stage they are as cute as a carp will ever be. This cuteness means that they are also of good eating size. 

  There were thousands of individual fish within view and probably another ten-thousand unperceived under the cover of duckweed. A single Great Blue Heron was enjoying the feast on this particular afternoon and he was engaged in “Carpe Carpio” – which basically means “Seizing the Carp.” I took several shots of this bird doing his thing – including landing a successful jab at one of the carplets (see above).

  The final “carpe” is achieved with a lightening speed extension of the long neck. The moment is so fast that it is hard to see – you see the before and the immediately after, but not the in-between. My shot freezes one of these plunges at the moment the water blanket was lifted and the heron’s head sliced under the surface. It is difficult to appreciate the shear patience and stalking skill that led up to this point. I present to you the chance to do just a thing (Heron Movie).  

  Even fish in a barrel need stalking. The heron took each step without breaking the surface or creating a ripple. The long neck is extended out at a shallow angle in order to place the head well out in front of the footwork. Both of the huge eyes are focused down to create a 3-D perceptual cone. Only when a single target is chosen does the fisherman coil its neck to ready for the strike.

 Although it is the kill that normally gets all the attention in movie clips, I here present only the stalk so that you can appreciate this crucial part of this fisherman’s strategy. This particular stalk ended in a dead little carp, but I’ll withhold that part from you. I grew weary of watching the thing and turned off the camera just before the strike occurred. Patience is a virtue for fisherman and filmer alike.

October 15, 2008

October Stinks

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:34 pm

  From reading the title, you might get the impression that I hate October. Such a statement, taken out of context, could be considered downright Anti-American. Well, let me assure you that I am referring only to a small part of the month and not the whole package. There is nothing not to like (was that a double negative or what!) about the season – with the leaf color palette entering into full stage, pumpkin dotted fields, Indian corn and all – but this also happens to be the season for Stinkbugs.  These little packages of foulness are the reason that October can stink.

  These insects, card-carrying members of the “true bug” order, spent their summer growing up. The little stinkers turn into big ones by the time late September and early October rolls around and generally make their presence known on warm autumn days.

  It’s easy enough to identify Stinkbugs (see above) because of their shield-shaped outlines.  They are more properly known as Shieldbugs because of this.  You could, in fact, paint a blue field with stars and run a few red and white stripes down the back and you’d have a pretty good version of the shield adorning our national bird.  The top part of the shield (where the blue starry part would be) is the creature’s thorax and the bottom portion (where the stripes would go) are the wing covers. As true bugs, you’ll notice that the upper portion of the wing covers are “hard” and the lower portions are “soft” and veiny – thus the group name of Hemiptera or half wings.

  You probably are not interested in this technical stuff are you? No, you would rather find out what all the stink is about. Stink bugs don’t put up a stink until they are prompted to do so when threatened.  As a rule they go about their daily lives smelling much like you or I (generally good, in other words, until your deodorant fails).  They only have a few means of defense. Most are straw-mouthed plant eaters and can’t really land a good bite. There is the option to fly away or hide behind their protective coloration (like this tan one).  When it gets down to it, however, they can drop the big CHO bomb if they have to. By that, I mean an aldehyde chemical composed of a whole bunch of carbons, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that combine into a putrid stew.

  The smelly stuff is exuded from two glands located between the 2nd and 3rd pair of legs. I suppose you could call these armpits if you like.  It takes a roughing up in order to get the bug to exude the chemical bomb. It is meant to make you, or a predator, drop the smelly party in favor of sweeter smelling fare. I was amused at one website which attempted to explain exactly how to make a “stinkbug stink.”  The site states that in order “to make a stinkbug release its odor, hold the insect with your thumb and forefinger.”  This sounds so formal doesn’t it?  I wonder if holding up your pinkie while doing this would affect the bouquet of the stench.

  A Stinkbug’s smell is not skunk-like but it is strong enough to discourage a second whiff. One author described the smell as “fairly sweet” but I’m not sure I would go that far.  So, the lesson to be learned here is not to rough up a Stinkbug, or otherwise hold one betwixt thumb and forefinger, and you’ll both get through the month in good shape. The bug will hibernate as an adult and you will stick around to greet winter with a smile.  Happy Stinkbug Month.

October 12, 2008

Four and Twenty

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:49 pm

This morning the day dawned clear in spite of the ground hugging fog. Right around 7:45 am the eastern sky was still pinkish orange in advance light of the sun. Moving across this natural canvas was a river of life coursing from the southeastern marshes to northwestern cornfields. Tens of thousands of blackbirds flew in column formation about 20 birds wide. I only watched them for a minute or so while attempting to count their numbers. I lost track after approximately a thousand were tallied. Given that there were as many coming off the horizon to the right of me as were diminishing on the horizon to the left of me, it’s safe to say my 10 grand figure was conservative. There certainly were more than four and twenty.

The sight of a mega flock of fall blackbirds instills different feelings in different creatures. For the farmer, this is a picture of destruction –dark birds bent on destroying what ever corn crop they can find. For the naturalist it is something to pause and stare at without assigning it a negative or positive connotation. To the sharp eyed Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk it is the promise of a full crop by days end should they be lucky enough to snare a few for dinner.

This time of year such a sight is common. Huge mixed flocks of blackbirds assemble in the autumn months before beginning their southward journey. These groups roost together overnight and then venture to ripened corn fields and feedlots at first light. Traditionally, by that I mean very long ago, these gatherings consisted only of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, with a smattering of Brewer’s and Rusty Blackbirds. European Starlings presently make up a large component of these flights now that they have settled in within the past century. Although not related to the original mix, they share their hue and fondness for togetherness.

Today’s flock was “original” in nature, being mostly Red-wings and Grackles as far as I could tell.Because of the distance between them and me they appeared to be passing silently, but I knew better. As visually overwhelming as these collective flights are, their noise level is even more arresting. Every bird in the group is saying his or her piece as if to comment on the price of wheat in China or the quality of grain in Farmer Bill’s field. A human observer nestled right in the center of one of these gangs is overwhelmed with a deafening cacophony of cackles, chuckles, and generally cantankerous sounds. Listen here to a group I recently recorded and turn your sound all the way up to get the full experience (blackbird chorus).

Like it or not, these birds are just doing what comes natural. North American blackbirds are often called Troupials as a group to distinguish from the old world blackbirds. (The blackbirds that were baked in the limerical pie were actually members of the thrush family). This term comes from the French word “troupe” which literally means “a troop or bunch.” The scientific name of the Red-winged Blackbird begins with the word Agelaios which means “flocking” in the Greek tongue. So, you see, its part of their very being to collect into gangs of a like feather.

Spring and summer behavior is quite the opposite for these birds. Males compete for the attentions of the females and vigorously chase off rival males. They can not stand the presence of another of the same sex.Most of these creatures, especially the Red-wings, are insect eaters at this time of year as well.The end of the breeding season triggers the flocking itch and a switch to a whole grain diet. Along with the psychological changes, physical changes occur such as the browning of the feathers and the development of larger stomachs lined with stronger muscles.

Soon enough this maddening flock phase will pass. You’ll step out one day and notice that most of the blackbirds are gone for the winter (the Starlings, unfortunately, stay) and there will be a deep chill in the air. You might as well take in this spectacle while it- and your field corn – lasts.

October 9, 2008

The Speckled Cormorant of Gratitude

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:07 pm

When David Howell, chairman of the Friends of the Detroit River, showed me this picture (see above) I was intrigued. He encountered the bird last month while kayaking just off the shore of Humbug Island. Not quite sure what to make of it, he squeezed off a few snap shots and continued on his route. Mr. Howell suspected it was a Cormorant, but was thrown by the odd coloration (see another view here).

I was able to confirm his suspicions and explain that his photo depicts a piebald, or partial albino, Double Crested Cormorant. This goose-sized species is normally glossy black with red facial features. I saw more than my share of cormorants out east and can share a number of pictures of normally colored birds for comparison (see here and here). Individuals like the Humbug bird are endowed with a rare genetic mutation that partially turns off their melanin (the dark pigments in the skin) production and leaves them with sporadic patches of pure white. Pure albinos are pure white and lack all melanin. Albinos are much rarer than these partially white creatures, but piebalds are rare enough to deserve a prolonged look.

You might recall my earlier escapade when I presented you with a blurry shot of a piebald cowbird, so the term “piebald” shouldn’t be foreign to you. Forgive me if I repeat myself when I mention that the term means “a random spotting of white” in old English. The “bald” part refers to the color white – as in the Bald Eagle which, as you know, has a fully feathered white head without male pattern baldness.

This Double-crested Cormorant appears to be doing his best to look like a bald eagle. He really does look like the living incarnation of Ben Franklin’s ideal national symbol. Ben originally wanted the Turkey as our federal bird but gave way to better minds when the bald eagle was chosen. In this bird we have a hybrid of sorts -a white-headed turkey-like bird that would have made a great compromise between the two choices. Ya think?

While putting a “bald” head on a scrawny necked bird doesn’t exactly make it noble, there is something very noble about the way this species holds its wings. Cormorants, as deep diving fish eaters, have forsaken feather oil in order to lessen their resistance when plowing through the water. They must dry their wings after an extended period in the water and do so by holding out their wings like laundry in the sun.

I can’t leave the subject of piebaldness with the cormorant, however. You see, I saw yet another piebald bird at a bird feeder outside of Barnstable, Massachusetts just last week. This time the white-splashed creature was a Black-capped Chickadee (see here). In the true tradition of fuzzy piebald photography, I present this shot to you. In this case, the back of the bird was washed with white – as if it had been splashed with bleach. A normal bird would have a slatey blue-gray back. Being a chickadee, of course, the bird was flighty at best and frustratingly fast at worst so it gave me little opportunity to “capture” it digitally.

Given the fact that I’ve actually seen two piebald birds in 2008 and was shown a picture of a third, I’m think’n this has been a charmed year. Maybe having the “piebald chickadee of happiness” pay you a visit or viewing an image of the “speckled cormorant of gratitude” will result in something wonderful. Come to think of it, I did find a quarter in the sand soon after seeing the chickadee.

October 7, 2008

Stars and Slippers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:20 pm

  It’s nice to be back in Michigan, but there are a number of odds and ends from the Atlantic seashore that still deserve attention.  When that attention is directed at starfish and slipper shells the subject quickly drifts over to the odd.  All that you take for granted in the natural world is basically rent asunder when these creatures are considered.


With 1,000 feet you would think

Starfishes would be faster.

But with all those feet on just five legs

Speed’s just too hard to master.


  At low tide, the seaweed covered rocks lining the Cape Cod Canal were full of starfish. These five armed echinoderms are so familiar to us that they defy any need for an introduction. I was able to grab a few for a closer top view (see above) and a look at the flip side (see here). The diming light made it difficult to see much more, so I took one back to my campsite within an impromptu aquarium (Yes, this is a McDonald’s coffee cup).

  This species is called the Northern Starfish – Asterias vulgaris – a technical name which literally means “Common Star.” Equipped as they are with five legs and no head, any given arm can serve as a head as long as the creature is moving in the direction that appendage happens to be pointing. There are light sensitive eye spots at the end of each leg so that the star can detect an obstacle before it bangs into it.  Of course starfish can’t travel at unsafe speeds because they move by means of their tiny feet rather than their legs. Getting all those feet to march in a coordinated manner is difficult. But since Starfish feed on clams and mussels, beasts that ain’t exactly speed demons themselves, glacial serves in place of gallop.

  A close look at the underside of a submerged starfish reveals hundreds of these tiny tube feet (see here). They operate by means of a pressurized water system. If you’ve ever filled a surgical glove with water you’ve noticed how you can manipulate the fingers by squeezing the contents. This is basically how these tube feet work. Take a look at the picture above and you will notice a bright red freckle on the creatures topside which functions as the intake valve for this water vascular system.

  Although I won’t get into it here, Starfish feed by everting their stomach out through their mouth (if you can call it that) to digest their meal externally. Oh, and by the way, they have the choice to reproduce sexually or asexually depending on the mood.



Slipper Shells are boys when young

With names like Ted or Bill.

As older each they do become,

They change their names to Jill.


  As odd as starfish reproductive biology is, Atlantic Slipper Shells do them one better. Named for the slipper-like look of the empty shell, these seashells are familiar beachcombing fare on the bay side of the Cape. They attach themselves to any hard surface and are often found attached to whelks and horseshoe crabs and always to each other. Large “family” clusters of slipper shells can contain a dozen or more individuals (see how many you can count here or here).

 The amazing, if not slightly unnatural, thing about their lifestyle is that all the smaller shells are male.  The large bottom shell of each stack belongs to a female. All slipper shells are born male and they undergo a sex change as soon as another male clamps onto them. It takes about 60 days for a he to become a she. If the main female dies, the next one up the stack will then undergo the gender switch and on ad infinitum.

  This type of lifestyle is called “sequential hermaphrodism” in the dry terminology of the text books. The scientific name spells it out in a bit spicier manner, however. Crepidula fornicata means basically what you think it does (to fornicate means having “relations” outside of marriage). They mate with others in their stack and never have to “pop the question.”

  Slipper shells spend their entire life in one spot, so who can blame them. Once they attach to a surface they remain there until the day they die. About the only unanswered question in their life is what name they will have when they enter the afterlife.

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