Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 29, 2008

That Guilty Look

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:33 pm

 I was checking out our vehicle counter at the nature center the other day and I got a bit of a surprise. The counter is located in a small box with a hinged lid. When I flood the interior with light upon opening the top, I never know what I am going to see. During the warm season there is usually a small spider scurrying for dark cover or an occasional blinded yellow jacket perched on a beginner nest suspended from the top. I wait for the spider to seek refuge and flick away the ‘jacket before it recovers. The cold season lid lifting experience is far more mundane – the only thing I normally see inside the small box is the even smaller metal counter within. This time I was greeted by a pair of large mammalian eyes as the shaft of daylight cut into the interior. Those peepers belonged to a White-footed Mouse perched atop the metal lid of the counter.

  I was slightly taken aback, but not enough to prevent me from carefully lowering the lid, reaching for my camera, and re-enacting the opening sequence. I had my finger on the camera shutter this time and was ready to get off a quick shot before the creature darted. It was a mouse, after all, they always dart away from light and discovery.  I again lifted the lid and saw that the thing was frozen into the same exact pose as it was earlier.  It had not budged an inch or moved a whisker. I quickly snapped a shot, then another, and another. He didn’t move until I lowered my hand down to nudge him off the counter.

  The image that stared back at me, the one above, was the picture of intense guilt. It is the lot of mice that they always look guilty – even when they’ve not done anything to be guilty of. It is possible that all mice feel inherent guilt during every living moment of their lives. They are basically born to be eaten and there are no retirement homes for old White-footed Mice. Every breath they take, and they take a lot of them, is expected to be their last.  I was not a fox, hawk, mink, or a weasel but I surely was some sort of death angel come to gather a microtine soul. This stunned creature was caught off guard and instantly resigned to meeting its maker – even if this particular grim reaper was taking his sweet time documenting the event.  

  It so happens that this mouse was guilty of building a nest inside the box without permission.  Take a broader look (here) and you can see it in the upper right hand corner. The ball shaped nest was made of finely packed grasses, shredded leaves, and a liberal dose of winged maple seeds. Since the structure was crammed into a corner it was not in the way. This death angel, not being hungry or opposed to the idea, didn’t object. I simply nudged the maker and invited the guilt-ridden soul to flee, either to the comfort of its nest or up and out of the box. It did neither.

 Although I prompted it several times, he merely scooted around and over the counter box countless times. It would not leap out or nest up. No, he wasn’t sick. His movements were spritely. But, each time he stopped, he assumed “the scared snotless position” (see here). My reassurances, rendered in an unintentional God-like voice, fell upon his very large ears but had no effect.  “Kill me now,” the unblinking eyes begged, “and get it over with.” “Never mind,” impatiently boomed the big voice from above, “I’ll get the numbers and leave you alone.” 

  I got those numbers, closed the counter lid and then lowered the box lid. The last thing I saw was the twinkle of guilty eyes in the settling darkness next to the counter. 

  Mouse psychology aside, there are a few things to learn from this scenario. First of all, this creature was immediately identifiable as a White-footed Mouse by its fawn brown coat and white paws. These features are also shared by the Deer Mouse, so the only way to be sure – other than killing the beast and performing a whole host of measurements – is to look at the tail. The tail of the Deer Mouse is distinctly bi-colored and that of the White-footed Mouse is not. In other words, the Deer Mouse has a sharp delineation between the dark upper portion of the tail and the white under side. The White-foot tails, like our petrified example, gradually grade from dark into light.

    On a final note, his reluctance to enter his nest probably indicates that the structure was not done. White-footed Mice first gather the material together into a ball then proceed to chew their way in to make an internal chamber. I do believe that I interrupted the nest building process in the early stages. Knowing that he couldn’t possibly think of starting over, our mouse stuck to his guns. His guilty plan, as it turned out, worked out just fine. He will have the prolonged internal comfort of his secret lair for at least another month.

November 27, 2008

The Deer I Shot

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:49 am

Hey, everybody’s doing it this time of year. They’re talking about the buck they just shot, just spotted, just missed, or just saw tied onto the roof of a car. I just spotted a high six-pointer in the bed of a muddy black Ford pickup on Telegraph. The other day I parked next a Mercury sedan with a seven-pointer hanging out of the trunk (see above) and I stopped to watch an impressive – and live – ten pointer walk across the road ahead of me. I really want to show you the deer I shot, however.

  Before I reveal my prize, a little background is required. November is rut month for the White-tailed Deer. It is the time when the bucks are in prime condition and operating at prime stupidity. They are obsessed with the does and are driven exclusively by hormones. The big bucks, those endowed with sizable antlers, rule the roost. They can lay claim to any doe they wish as long as the other guys don’t have bigger antlers. If there is any question about relative size the thing is settled by locking antlers with the challenger. The winner claims his love prize and the loser looks for another doe. Because the world is over run with white-tails there is always another doe. But, like I said, I really want to show you the buck I shot.

Antlers are grown every year just for this season. A buck healthy enough to sprout a massive rack has the dance floor. A first or second year deer with spike horns becomes the equivalent of the pimply kid standing over by the punch bowl.  The big bucks tend to end up riding in the back of ford pickups, so it is left for the less endowed ones to bide their time and maybe get some action. I shot one of these small ones - I got him right between the eyes. He dropped his head and “bang.” Now you can see him (look here).

  I shot this fellow with a camera and he never knew what hit him. As you can see, it was a spike horn with just the hint of a fork at the top. What you may not have noticed are those small pieces of green bark sticking to the base of the antlers after a sapling battle. There is so much detail in this view that you can appreciate some other deer traits without looking at a head hanging out of a trunk. Note those big eyes, keen to any graceful doe entering the field, and those super long whiskers sticking out for… no particular reason.

 Deer are covered with glands and exude a musky odor similar to that pimply kid at the dance – a mix of “good” and “bad” smells. There is a gland, called the pre-orbital gland, located just in front of those eyes.  You can’t see the ones located on the forehead, on the inside of the hock, on the outside of each leg between the ankle and the hooves, and the ones between the toes.  Yes, between the big toes!

 Whitetails are toe walkers. You can plainly see this when an animal is walking on a hard surface such as this individual. There are actually four toes present. The two main toes are the “hooves” and the two minor toes become the “dew claws” positioned back up on the leg. Deer have no thumbs. If they did, they probably could avoid all those car/deer accidents and hitch a decent ride rather than smack into them.

  I think we’ve gloated enough over my trophy buck. He provided some nice little deer observation pointers but it’s time to let him return to the punchbowl. The deer I shot was taken through a plate glass window at a distance of ten feet. This less than impressive stud was biding his time at a bird feeder of all places. Take a look here and you can see him, and his little forest buddies “Charcoal” & “Foxy”, picking up some seeds at the Metrobeach Nature Center feeding station.

 You can leave all this last part out when you tell the other guys about my buck.

November 24, 2008

Behold the Weather ‘Rat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:43 pm

 

  Forget the woodchuck when it comes to weather forecasting – you’ll want to keep your eye on the lowly little muskrat for your seasonal prognostications. The ‘rat report is just as inaccurate as the ‘chuck report but it can be consulted much earlier. You can, in other words, get your mis-information much quicker on the muskrat channel.

  Face it, woodchucks are weather cowards. They dig burrows and hibernate when things get cold. The only “wisdom” they impart is when the winter will end and they are not very good at that either. Muskrats, on the other hand, tough it out. These overgrown aquatic field mice remain active all winter and do so while fully immersed in the water.  Now, tell me, which animal should you listen to when the subject of old man winter comes up?

  The real answer to this question is, of course, that neither creature can tell you a thing.  They don’t talk and don’t know how to predict anything. Humans that believe otherwise should  considered as “special” and avoided if at all possible. This didn’t stop certain 19th century naturalists since they were already considered “special” by the populous. They crowned the muskrat, not the woodchuck, as the weather wise sage.

  Of course they knew that muskrats were incapable of speech, but they claimed that the ‘rats spoke through their actions and not their words.  They stated a correlation between the size of the muskrat’s lodge and the severity of the winter that followed it. In short, this meant that larger lodges meant “larger” winters.

 November is lodge building month for most muskrats. In spite of the economy, our local muskrats have been very busy builders this November. I conducted a scientific survey of six lodges in one small section of marsh. Two were huge, two were medium, one was still under construction, and one looked like it was made by a first grader on a Sunday afternoon. Based on  this exaustive work, I’ve determined that there is a 50% chance that this coming winter will be severe. Call it guessing, but those are the numbers my friend.

  The largest lodges were made of American Lotus stems, leaves, and pods (see one of these mega-condos in the above picture). The lotus is a big-leaved plant. Big plants make for big lodges. Lotus lodges may look nice, but these houses are consistently destroyed by winter ice and wave action. they are like the proverbial house of straw versus the winter wolf. I guarantee that these constructions will be gone by mid-winter. Lotus eating muskrats thinks big, but they don’t live very long – for them all winters are bad.

  The lodge “under construction” (see here) is what I would call a medium sized structure but it is a work in progress. In this case, the lodge was made up of piled cattails stalks and bottom debris such as old water lily leaves. Muskrats habitually pile the stuff up and chew a network of tunnels and rooms through the interior as it settles. This one was only three days into the process when this picture was taken last week. It may eventually reach the huge status of the Lotus lodges, but for now it stands as a monument to a so-so winter.

  The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the house will survive as a dependable shelter through the coming winter. Unfortunately, the creek does rise and fall around these parts and the Good Lord has been known to taketh as well as giveth. There is a better than even chance that this lodge will not make it either. I guess it bears repeating that, for a muskrat, all winters are bad.

  Given the above discussion it should be no surprise that most of “our” muskrats are actually “bank ‘rats.”  They live in branching tunnel systems excavated into the earthen banks next to the cattail and Lotus beds. Hmm, come to think of it woodchucks do the same thing.

 Go ahead, see if you can divine the weather ‘rat’s winter forecast this year. They may indeed have some instinctual weather wisdom which they unwittingly display in their lodge building styles. Personally, I don’t think muskrats waste much time on such nebulous things. To a muskrat, all winters are bad and all winters eventually end.

November 22, 2008

A Question of Translation

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:02 pm

 

 You’ll see Karl Linneaus’ name bandied about quite a bit in this column.  The 18th century biologist is the father of our current scientific naming system. His concept was to assign a specific two-parted specific name, usually in Greek or Latin, to all the world’s lifeforms. A scientific name is universal and one understood by scientists all across the globe regardless of their native tongue. For instance, the name Melanerpes carolinus refers to, and only to, the Red-bellied Woodpecker. The Chinese scientist understands this just as well as the Peruvian, Croatian, or Haitian scientist does.

  If we relied solely on the common name, everyone – including the English speaking scientists – would be confused. For instance, this Red-bellied Woodpecker doesn’t really have an obvious red belly. I could see a Peruvian scholar raising his eyebrow at this fact. You’d think that a red belly would be it’s most prominent feature, but it’s not (see above picture to verify this fact). Now, I’ve often kidded openly about the absurdity of this fact and ridiculed the lout that came up with that common name. I may even have insinuated that Karl was to blame, but upon closer examination I find that I must eat some humble pie. Please allow me to explain.

  First of all, let me make one thing clear: the Red-bellied Woodpecker really does have red on its belly. Take a look (here) at this recent road-side specimen and you can verify this for yourself. The belly on the bird is the part located below the breast and basically between the legs. There’s not much red there, but its there sure enough. Some might call this a mere blush, but it is a red blush.

  Mr. Linnaeus described this bird in 1758 and pretty much nailed it by concisely stating that this was a “woodpecker with a red cap and nape, a back with black & white bands, central tail feathers that are white with black spots, and Ani regio rubra punctata.” That last part, the one I slipped in as Latin- sorry – translates as an “anal region spotted with red.”  My man Karl never said it that it was red-bellied, he correctly stated that the red was scattered about the anal area! The challenge was to find a common name that said this simply and decently. “Red-a _ _ed Woodpecker” would have been starkly correct but impolite when used in mixed company. “Pimple Butt Woodpecker” had the same problem! So, our anal thinker used the technically correct “Red-bellied” and so here we are today. You can’t easily see the reddish belly, but its there and I will forever point that out.

  Now that we’ve got that mess out of the way, we can take some time to admire a road specimen of this bird a little closer. Take a look here at a side study in order to take in the whole creature (see here). Note the black & white banding on the back just like Karl said it would be. The red cap running from forehead to neck on this individual identifies it as a male. Even if you don’t like looking at dead animals, I think you have to agree that this scarlet hue is spectacular.  Females, by the way, only have red on the back of their heads.  The stiff tail feathers (see here) function as props when the bird is engaged in wood peck’n.  Even though one of the central tail feathers is missing, please note that the remaining one is “white with black spots.”

  Woodpecker feet are always incredible and these two views (see here and here) will confirm that fact for you. Unlike most birds, red-bellies and their kind have a toe arrangement in which two toes point forward and two point back. This toe set-up is called a “zygodactyl” arrangement. You are invited to forget that word, but I’m willing to bet it is worth a zillion points in Scrabble.

  Our blushbelly woodpecker chat is not yet tapped out. I consider it my job to bring up something that might not be obvious when performing an on-line examination such as this. We’ve already covered the red belly part, but I also need to pull out the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s tongue (see here) to exhibit one of its most important tools.  This appendage can extend out more than twice the length the bill and is equipped with a barbed harpoon to skewer wood boring grubs. Take a second glance at the previous picture and you’ll see that there are a half a dozen barbs at the pointy business end. The tongue is so long, in fact, that the root extends around the base and over the top of the skull, continues past the eye ridge and eventually anchors inside the right nostril!

  Hopefully all your future encounters with a Red-belly will be with a live bird. Their squirrel-like call (listen here to this Red-bellied Call) is a good sign that these common birds are overhead and ready to test your observation skills. You may point it out as a Red-a _ _ed Woodpecker if you wish, but never take Karl’s name in vain.

November 20, 2008

Raisins and Drupes

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:55 pm

Nature’s Holiday table is set with a display of artfully arranged raisins and drupes (see above).  The invitations are out and the diners should be arriving anytime now. The feast, in this case, is one intended for over-wintering birds but the offering is not so far off from our own fare. A bowl of raisins, dried plums, apricots, and peaches will be a perfectly normal sight on the after-dinner coffee table from here on out. Next week marks the beginning of our consumptive season when it is time to get fattened for the winter. Food, therefore, is a very topical subject which is why I bring it up. “Bringing food up” certainly can have two holiday meanings, but I am strictly speaking of food that goes down and stays down!

  I am speaking about the over ripe fruit of wild grapes and Gray Dogwoods that will be heading down the throats of winter birds such as Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and dozens of other avian species. Without this abundant bounty life for them would be in the pits.  These fruits have long passed their prime and are now shriveling under the influence of dry air, wind, and cold. They are being freeze-dried, as it were, and preserved for storage well into the winter months.

  My comparison of wild raisins to their cultured cousins is not very obscure since dried grapes are raisins – wild or not. Wild grape clusters are spare affairs with only a dozen or so berries in each cluster. Each aged grape is packed with tart goodness and about 5 seeds per package.  This is as good a time as any to remind the French that this is the lowly savage grape that once saved their collective wine butts many years ago. Yes, when French grapevines were dying out our native stock was used to save the industry.  They don’t bring this up too often (except perhaps in the spirit of the second meaning of the phrase).  I don’t know much about the French raisin industry, but I suspect it is second fiddle to the wine industry. Our birds happen to like wild raisins and that’s all that matters.

  Now, the drupe thing might have been more confusing to you. A drupe is a type of fruit that has a fleshy portion overlaying a single hard “stone,” or pit, which in turn encloses a seed of some sort. Peaches, plums, apricots and the like are drupes by definition and so are Dogwood berries. Large dried fruits are nature’s candy and so too are tiny dried dogwood fruits. White berries, held up by bright red panicles, are the easily identified crop of the so-called Gray Dogwood. Each berry has only a scant fleshy portion to offer, but they are rich in fat and make up for their individual deficiencies by fruiting in great abundance. Over 95 species of birds have been recorded eating these berries and numerous mammals have been known to get in on the act as well. I don’t know what the French would say about it, but dried dogwood is good stuff.

 On a final note, allow me to remind you again that this discussion of dry winter fruit will all come out in the end. Birds may eat these berries, and keep them down, but they eventually will, well, you know….let them go out the other end.  These “let out” packets will contain the grape and dogwood seeds that will grow into the products that will cover future winter dining plates. The grand cycle of life can be a very basic thing. The French know this but prefer to keep it under wraps.

November 18, 2008

A Clean ‘Rat on a Cloudy Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:49 am

 Everything about the November marsh was leaden and still today. A gray clouded sky issued sprinklings of granular snow but there was little wind to move the flakes about. The still water reflected the neutral shade of the sky above like polished metal. Any signs of life were welcome additions to this otherwise 2-D black & white photo-scape. A single muskrat provided that sign on this afternoon.

  The muskrat in question was engaged in a typically repetitious cycle of eating, swimming, and cleaning. It was so thoroughly engaged that it chose to pay very little attention to me. The creature knew I was watching it but ignored me as best it could. Even after a loud sneeze on my part sent it into a panic dive it quickly resumed its activity which was, like I said, eating, swimming, and cleaning. This is what November ‘rats do when they are not sleeping.

  I filmed the little guy doing his stuff (see above). His primary concern was a clump of cattails that had an exposed section of rhizomes at its base. Although all the upper leaves were dead, the underground stems and buds held the promised of starchy nutrition and some greenery. He repeatedly returned to the clump to chew away at the base, pull off sections of the rhizome, or nip off fresh shoots. After ripping off a mouthful of goodness he would bob back into the water and propel himself a short distance away to eat it. His dining spot was a carefully chosen spot about three body lengths distant.

  The eating process consisted of a series of skillful manipulations that amounted to peeling away the outer layers in order to get at the succulent core. His monkey-like dexterity was accomplished with nimble little four toed paws – each of which is equipped with pseudo thumb for leverage- and some carefully placed bites.  Watch this short video of the process (see Feeding Time) and you’ll get an idea of what I am talking about. Run this thing over and over again for the better part of a half hour and you’ll also get a sense of what I saw and of the critter’s dogged single mindedness. 

 So far I have covered the swimming and eating part. Now comes the cleaning part. Muskrats are among the most fastidious mammals you will ever meet when it comes to grooming. Every third or forth round trip on this day was punctuated with a bout of washing, primping, scratching, and stroking.  I’d explain it to you further, but feel that this video segment says it all (see Grooming Sequence here). I actually edited down this scene because, even though I know you’d be riveted by watching the full two minutes of this preening session, the photo site simply can’t hold that much excitement.  Perhaps someday I’ll release the full director’s cut, but for now this segment will have to do.

  A muskrat washes itself like a giant field mouse. The resemblance is to be expected because the two are closely related.  All this attention is necessary to keep the outer guard hairs water repellent and the dense woolly underfur fluffy and dry. Yes, the creature remained dry even though it was constantly going for a dip. A marvelous little aquatic creation this one – a well fed little chap on the inside and a clean one on the outside (see here).

November 15, 2008

Holy Hig Candlewort!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:50 pm

  Two days ago I was driving down a long country road scanning the late afternoon countryside for signs of November nature.  The route was west of Saline and the gently rolling landscape was garbed in the muted browns and tans one would expect for this time of year.  Many of the fields had been freshly turned and their expanses of exposed black soil were still raw and moist. Against this backdrop, a flash of roadside green – a flash of tall roadside green – caught my eye.  It was a Mullein plant in summer mode.

  I did a turn-around and came back to confirm that my eyes had not deceived me.  Sure enough, what stood before me was a stately seven foot Mullein plant (see above) acting as if it were a sweltering August afternoon. It had recently completed the flowering cycle and was just beginning to set seeds. Every leaf was vibrant green and complete. You may not think this a remarkable thing, but when you consider that nearly every other Mullein plant in the region – indeed in all the north country -now stands dead and brown, there is definitely something going on with this individual. We’ve had several heavy frosts already. The pale brown foxtail grasses and withering goldenrods surrounding it are witness to this.

  Take a good close look (here) and you can verify what I am talking about. The leaves are untouched by Jack Frost and the slender brown pistil portions of each former flower are still in evidence. Normally, these biennial plants begin to grow in early summer from a leafy rosette (cluster of ground hugging leaves). The flowering stalks begin to peek out by mid July (see here an example from July 10) and come to full flower by August. Occasionally, some individuals flower into September but that’s about it. The Stalk, up to eight feet tall, bears yellow flowers and eventually ripens into a dark brown seedhead packed with rounded seed capsules. Once this final mission is complete, the whole plant dies and the next generation is generated from the scattering of thousands of tiny seeds. Just down the road from this late bloomer, all the other Mulleins were leafless stalks. They had followed the book. Apparently our green giant couldn’t read!

  As literate or illiterate plants, Mulleins have always attracted attention. It seems that nearly every human culture has given them a different name. Hig Candlewort, Ice Leaf, Shepherd’s Club, and Candlestick Plant are just a few of the varied labels.  I used to call them Dirt Spears because the dead stalks, when pulled up whole, performed admirably as hand-thrown missiles. The “war-heads” on these missiles were the exploding dirt clods which were glorious in effect when detonating on your former best friend’s back.  The candle name extends from their use as tallow-dipped torches – you know, those kind used by the angry villagers when they raided Frankenstein’s Castle.

 The common name Mullein apparently came from the Old English “Muleyn” which meant something that is woolen. This name is probably the most scientific of the bunch because it references the dense wooly pelt that covers the leaves of this plant. There is little doubt that this fur coating served to keep our late season plant in the green for as long as it has.

 I will be mentally pulling for the Saline Mullein to see if it survives the frosty weeks ahead. It has already beaten the odds in an impressive way. It is inevitable, though, that it will turn brown and die. When this happens, I’ll see if I can stop by and physically pull it up. Just for old time’s sake, I will then give it a proper send off and launch it into the air as a Dirt Spear.

November 12, 2008

The Sound of the North Wind

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:23 pm

   Listen for just a moment (The North Winds). Did you hear it over the earthbound sounds of blackbirds and robins? If not, listen again and focus your ear on something in the high background. It is the haunting sound of the North Wind coming down to rest for the winter. That cooing sound, barely audible but resonating, is the call of the Tundra Swan (see the responsible flock above). These northern visitors are the very essence of the great white north. Their arrival is a clarion call that the gentle part of autumn has past and the season will begin to bear some teeth.

  Tundra Swans migrate south to the “balmier” conditions of the lower 48 and arrive here by early November. Reared on the North slopes of Alaska, they retreat for the winter to the Great Lakes region and Chesapeake Bay. Several thousand annually seek refuge on the choppy waters of the Detroit River mouth and sustain themselves on the rich beds of Water Celery.

  Tundras are easy to identify (see here a small flock riding the waves offshore of Lake Erie Metropark). Large white birds with solid black beaks (each having a small yellow dot before the eye), erect positioning of the neck, and endowed with the gift of song, there are few birds to compare or confuse them with. The immature birds are sooty gray and tend to have pinkish bills, but are readily identified by their adult companions.  Trumpeter Swans are similar, but as of yet they are very rare members of our local flock. No, about the only bird that can fool the distant observer are the much larger Mute Swans.

  Mutes are non-migratory swans that hang about all year. They are naturalized European immigrants that form 100% of our summer swan population. From November through March, however, they are joined by their graceful and much more welcome northern kin.  The two rarely mix, as if there is some genetic pride that separates the two like oil from water. I’d assign the Tundras to the water role since they are, like the foamy waves, an integral part of the gray wind-lashed November aquaticscape. The Mutes are the oily ill fitting ones.

  Nonetheless, the Mutes do occasionally join in with the Tundras and this allows us to see a direct comparison (see here). Mute Swans have bright orange bills topped with a black knobs. They tend to hold their necks in a curved “ceramic” position and fluff their back feathers up with an aristocratic flair that betrays a hint of European snobbery. Mutes, despite their names, do manage an occasional grunt – a sound more like a painfully stifled sneeze than a dignified bird call.  About the only time they make a loud noise is through the generation of sound though their beating wings (listen here as a group of five pass by: Mute Swan Wingbeats ).

  The wind whistles through the primaries of the Tundra Swans as well, but it is their ghostly call that carries for miles on even the gentlest of breezes. Their breathy sound mixes so well with the wind because it is, as I have already stated, made out of the same ethereal stuff as the North Wind itself.

November 10, 2008

Tape Grass is Good for You

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:59 pm

  I’m willing to bet that your mother told you about celery and waxed poetic on how good it is for you. I’m also thinking that you ate the stuff, based on her recommendation, and actually enjoyed it as long as it was slathered with peanut butter. I will even hazard a guess that you still like it and eat it. This is all O.K., by the way, but I need to tell you that your mother kept you away from the “other” celery. She didn’t do this with any evil intention but did so out of ignorance. You see, no one really cares or knows the truth about Water Celery. It happens to be good for you as well, but for different reasons.

  Water Celery, a.k.a. Tape Grass or Eel Grass, lives its life pretty much out of sight because it is a submerged aquatic plant growing in expansive beds just under the surface. Boaters know it as a summertime fouler of props.  Massive windrows of the strappy leaves roll up on shore after autumn storms (see here) and drape their rotting greenery over the beach sand and gravel. Detroit River/Lake Erie residents have a negative opinion of the plant because of this. In truth, the water celery is one of the most important members of our regional flora and it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a mere nuisance.

  With a name like Tape or Eel Grass, it’s no wonder moms don’t mention it to their children. No one really knows were the “Water Celery” name came from, but it is possible that a mom came up with it because it sounded better. The alternate names are better suited.  The tape-like leaves of this plant are anywhere from 5 to 9 feet long and are about 1/2 inch wide. They undulate in gentle current much like their other slimy namesake.

  In the above photo, I am holding a pair of mature water celery seed pods. These pods, looking for all the world like vanilla beans, deteriorate this time of year and discharge their cargo of seeds. The seeds are packed within a clear sticky gelatin that definitely does not remind one of vanilla (see here)!  Earlier in the summer, the celery sent forth a flower capsule attached to long slender stalk several feet in length. Only the very tip of the flower broke the surface and created a dimple on the water. Micro male flowers, released from the base of other plants, floated on the surface and literally fell into the female flower and pollinated it. Once fertilized, the capsule was withdrawn into the deep by means of a corkscrew action of the stalk (see here an example).

 All this is well and good, but the subject at hand is the relative merit of “goodness” for us humans. While eating the plant outright might be a last ditch survival move, the crucial value of this plant is as a food item for waterfowl. Ducks, especially divers such as Canvasbacks, Bluebills, and Redheads, depend on water celery for its high nutritive value – 19 species have been recorded consuming it.  Canvasbacks are so dependent upon it that the second part of their scientific name, Aytha vallisneria, is the Latin word for Water Celery. The web-footed clan are eating the leafy greens and the so-called “winter buds,” or tubers, which remain after the leaves are shed (see one here in the lower center of this detail view).

  Now, add to this the cover value for countless aquatic insects and the countless fish fry that eat those insects, and we have the makings of a V.I.P. (a very important plant). What keeps nature healthy keeps us healthy as well. Water celery is good for wildlife, the lake, and you – even without peanut butter.

November 8, 2008

Barking Up the Right Tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:52 pm

   There is no better time in the Naturespeak cycle to talk Squirreltalk than Autumntime. One could go nuts on the subject because squirrels tend to be a very chatty group of mammals.  They have the audacity to tell us humans exactly what they think, so getting them to speak into a microphone is not terribly difficult.  Porcupines and skunks turn their back on you, shrews are ultrasonic speakers, and muskrats, well, they don’t say much of anything in public or private.  Deer blow air out their noses and stomp their feet like frustrated children because they really don’t know what to say.

  Squirrels bark. They bark out warning, they bark out danger, they bark out love between their brothers and their sisters all over the land. If they had a hammer, they’d do the same. They don’t have hammers, so they do it with their ample vocal chords instead. Squirrels come in many different sizes and types and they bark out their warnings with varying different pitches and tempos determined by body size. Allow me to introduce you to the Fox, Gray, Red, and Eastern Chipmunk, the four most common local squirrels, and you’ll see what I mean.

  All of this barking and carrying on is accompanied by an impressive range of tail motions. Often the tail follows the exact beat of the bark, but we’ll cover this at some other time.  The tree squirrels- the Red, Gray and Fox-usually assume a calling position which places them upside down on a tree trunk. Chipmunks perch up on a log and a take on a noble stallion position (one front leg up).

  Fox Squirrels (see above) are the largest and most common members of the group. These yellow-brown creatures are adapted to life in the patchy woodlots found in suburban landscapes and rolling farm country. Like grumbling old uncles, they have the lowest and most guttural voice in the family (Fox Squirrel Call). As a rule they are the least talkative, however, and prefer to duck quietly behind a tree trunk as opposed to noisily confronting the subject of their angst.

  Gray Squirrels (see here) are smaller than Fox Squirrels; 12-24 oz. vs. their 28-40 oz. cousins, but Grays are much more opinionated and tend more toward vocal confrontation than timidity. Mature trees and big timber are the usual haunts for this squirrel. Gifted with a wide variety of calls, their bark ranges from a chucking sound to an outright scream. One individual chewed me out while walking in the Berkshires of Massachusetts this past September (Gray Squirrel Call). This squirrel has a slightly higher tone than the Fox and has the tendency to lapse more into the prolonged, and slightly creepy, “uuuuuuugh” bark.

  True to their name, Red Squirrels (seen here in a typical barking pose) are indeed reddish. This trait, combined with their white bellies and small size (5-9 oz.), makes them easy to identify. They are also loquacious to the extreme. Whereas the Fox Squirrel is the grumbling uncle and the Gray Squirrel the opinionated brother-in-law, the Red is the shrill aunt.  At least five different kinds of calls have been recorded for these hyper little beasts. Here is one of my yard squirrels recorded in full complaint mode (Red Squirrel Call). Because the creature is so small, their bark is more like a Chihuahua chirp.

  If there is any member of the squirrel family that really needs no introduction, it is the Eastern Chipmunk (see here). It is the smallest of our four subjects (only 2-4 oz. when soaking wet) and the one with the highest voice (Chipmunk Call).  A chipping Chipmunk can keep up this banter at the rate of 100 calls per minute for as long as 1/2 hour, according to Baker’s Mammals of Michigan book.  Although I find this call comforting when doled out to the ear in small doses, like that of all the squirrel calls, it can get very annoying. We can only thank God that chipmunks don’t have hammers and that they retire to winter dens during the cold season!

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