Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 28, 2009

Pecka-dee-dee-dee

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:43 pm

Had I come upon this hole ridden branch (pictured above) without seeing the maker, I would have declared this the product of a hungry woodpecker. When woodpeckers search for wood boring beetle larvae, they employ their chisel-like beaks to expose the hidden galleries and their barbed tongues to harpoon the soft prey within.  These birds are well adapted to this task and everything about their being has been developed towards this end. It is natural, therefore, to assume that they have the corner on this market. But, nothing in nature can be assumed – she is far too complicated a dame. No, these excavations were made by Chickadees.

Everyone loves Chickadees. Rarely are they described in anything other than glowing or anthropomorphic terms. “Beloved” and “cheerful” are two words that frequently make their way into any discussions regarding these tiny animated birds.  Now, don’t worry, I am not about to change all that  and reveal the dark side of Chickadee life. I have seen “angry” Chickadees, but that is beside the point. They are neither happy, mad, or sad but instead just “are.” They definitely are not woodpeckers…or are they?

Mostly insect eaters in the summer, Chickadees are expert foragers who increase their seed intake during the winter months. They spend nearly all their waking hours during the cold season investigating every nook, cranny, and hole for hidden food resources. I’ve been attempting to record these birds doing their thing this winter and found their high energy lifestyle was very difficult to record. Take a look at this film snippet (here) and you’ll see three-quarters of my efforts. The birds never stop moving. This hyper active creature can be found in nearly any position within a short span of time. In this knitted sequence, the birds are scrutinizing some tree bark, hanging upside down on a twig, and pulling apart a cat-tail seed head. Although I couldn’t get it on film, one of the birds was even hovering hummingbird style to sip sweet nectary water from a sugar-sickle dripping from a broken maple branch.

It has been estimated that is takes about 10 kcal of energy to keep one of these little dynamos going for a day. When the the birds find their food, they either eat it right away or carry it off to store it someplace. They remember their storage spots (called caches) and return to them when other resources are hard to find. This also means that Chickadees have good memories (or is it memoree-ree-rees?).

There is no doubt that this bird is well adapted for its lifestyle. A close up look at the tiny beak, merely 6 mm long (see below) , reveals the tool of an insect eater/ seed consumer. Just like the teapot in nursery rhyme, the appendage is short and stout. This brings us back to the earlier inference that most animals are not so locked into their structural limitations that they can’t expand their horizons a bit. There are a number of creatures that can’t flex and these are the ones currently on the endangered or threatened species list. Many of the inflexible ones are already extinct.

Life is full of examples, such as a deer that was caught eating ensnared birds out of a mist net or a Mute swan chasing down minnows, that show what seems to be an inappropriate use of God given parts. Chickadees defy the laws of tool use and frequently use their beaklets as chopping tools. A mated pair of birds are even capable of excavating their own nest cavity and often do.

I was delighted to come upon one of these birds recently that was actually staying in one place for an extended period of time (other than the  dead one that posed for the beak shot!). Take a look at this short video and you’ll see a Peckadee at work on the very stick pictured at the beginning of this column. He was expertly chiseling away at the dead wood and switching body positions in order to gain different angles.

I approached the stick after the bird flew away and could see the result of his diligent efforts. As a guy who tends to use a screwdriver as a pry bar, chisel, hammer, and wedge, I feel some kinship with the chickadee. Not that they need it, but I hope that I have given you yet another reason to like them as well.

February 25, 2009

Swanee River

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:52 pm

I just can’t let this winter pass without some kind of comment involving Tundra Swans. I’ve called your attention to these big beautiful birds before, but they merit all the attention they can get. The swans came in with the autumn wind, have wintered here on the Lower Detroit River, and are now reaching the end of their stay. The call of the returning Red-wing Blackbirds, now echoing over the frozen marshes,  are a sure sign that the Tundras will soon be packing.

Most of the eastern population of Tundra Swans pass over our region and winter along the east coat from  Chesapeake Bay to the Carolinas.  Several thousand individuals annually decide to stick to the celery beds available at the Detroit River mouth rather than move on to the coast. As long as there is open water, they can feed and maintain appearances. Rough winters can tax the local migrants, and this year several young birds have succumbed to starvation – a “normal” but tragic occurrence that reminds us the frailty of life.

There is no more stunning scene than an early morning sunrise on a crispy winter day on the Detroit. The relatively warmer waters of the river give off a rising steam that envelops and surrounds the small groups of Tundras on the water (see photo above). These birds sleep on the water, so the sunrise is a call for them to stir and begin the necessary activities of the day. The sight of their pale forms outlined in the fog combined with the auditory experience provided by a chorus of cooing calls, creates for some hauntingly beautiful  scenes. Watch this movie sequence here and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.

A typical day in the life of a winter Tundra Swan involves a wake-up bath, a bit of serenading and trumpeting along with fellow swans, some tip-up feeding on the celery beds, and an inland flight southwest to the corn fields of northern Monroe county. They are joined by other waterfowl, such as mallards, black ducks, and Canada Geese, who also take advantage of the waste grain found in these fields.  Oddly enough, the big white birds look perfectly natural in this terrestrial setting because it closely resembles their  summer tundra environs.

Late afternoon signals the return of the field foraging flocks back to the river. They arrive in small flocks of a five  or ten birds and each appearance stirs the birds already on the water to begin calling. The newcomers respond in kind, and the river once again becomes a noisy place.  By sunset, the birds are gathered together and, with heads tucked deep within the folds of their back feathers, they drift into blissful sleep.

Now that I’ve used the phrases “hauntingly beautiful” and “blissful sleep” in the same column, I can see it’s time to come back down to earth and drive a point home.  Tundra Swans, you see, are not “our” birds by any stretch of the imagination. They spend half of their time in other far places. Ours is a crucial wintering site, but every spot along their northward trek is equally as important.

When the birds take off from here, they will head northwest – a flight that will take them over Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and finally to the N.W. Territories or the Nunavut Territories of the high Canadian Arctic. They will nest on the open tundra and retrace the route the following fall.

Much of the breeding population overlaps with the territories of such dignitaries as Polar Bears and their tiny white sidekicks the Arctic Foxes. Churchill, on James Bay, Canada is one such spot where all three creatures can be seen in one view.

As ambassadors of this top of the world setting, the Tundra Swans can be considered as carrier pigeons delivering a message of world interdependence.  What happens to the tundra and arctic habitat has a direct effect on our regional lifeforms down here in the lower latitudes. You could say that all nature is global – in fact, I will say it: “All nature is global”. You can tell ’em that a big bird told ya.

February 21, 2009

Hoar-ray for Frost

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:24 pm

What is possibly one of the most beautiful creations of nature, Hoarfrost, has been given one of the worst names. Technically, hoarfrost is well named but the phonetic expression sounds like a reference to the world’s oldest profession. Sometimes “rime” or “radiation frost” is used, but these are no better. Radiation frost sounds like the effect of a nuclear winter for goodness sakes!

Hoary is classically defined as “gray or white as if with age.” It can be used, or at least it could be used at one time, to describe a white-haired old person. Today, I doubt that calling a woman hoary will get you the proper reception.  Even if we replace the word with grizzled, risen eyebrows and swinging purses will follow. No, today we use the term  “silver maned” in order to get across the point with minimal damage. Actually, it’s better not to tell anyone they look old, but that’s another point entirely.

Unfortunately, things named back in the old days still retain their original titles. Hoary, therefore,  is frequently used to describe animals. The Hoary Marmot, a high altitude cousin of the woodchuck, is grizzled with salt and pepper fur and an old dog type of whitish face. A Hoary Redpoll is a northern finch species that is basically a washed out version of a Northern Redpoll with very pale highlights. Hoarfrost, on the other hand, is neither plant nor animal, but is a temporary form of natural art resulting from a mix of moisture and temperature. No matter what it’s called, it is a stunning phenomenon on a micro scale.

Hoar…let’s just call it H-frost…forms on clear cold winter nights when radiation losses into the open air causes objects to become colder than the surrounding environs. This sets up a situation where ice crystals grow off of the atmospheric moisture or feeds off of the moisture which radiates from a plant stem. This form of frost is basically the cold weather equivalent to summer dew. In these conditions, the ice crystals are allowed a three dimensional space rather than the usual two dimensional Jack Frost patterns normally seen on icy windows. Knowing how this process happens does little to enhance the viewing experience, but it’s worth consideration.

So, this leaves us with a brief look at a few h-frost patterns and commentary which is little better than a travelogue.  Take the wonderful effect rendered on a dried Queen Anne’s Lace  seed head (above) or on the stem itself (see here). Oooh. Awww.  How about the re-flowering of a Dogwood seed head in the winter sunrise (see below). Oooh La la.

Sometimes, h-frost can produce a magical scene that with, a little imagination, can transport the viewer to distant lands. Take the northern forest scene (below) as an example. You can see a stand of snow covered spruce trees scattered over a barren landscape. The “fly-over” needed to take this shot was only a few inches off the ground and I didn’t venture more than a few feet off the trail to get the shot. This lilliputian forest was created by the growth of radiating crystals on exposed blades of grass sticking out of a frozen puddle. Individually (see here and here) the blades became stout tree trunks with graceful snow-covered boughs.

At the risk of saying too much about a good thing, I’ll stop and leave the looking to you. Take an opportunity the next frigid still morning to take in some of these sights.  Be sure to get out early before a breath of wind or a slight blush of sunlight destroys them. Be careful when you say “Ohhh” and “Ahhh” because your breath might destroy the delicate hoary thing before you.

February 18, 2009

That’s Snow Regular Goose!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:26 pm

Years ago, a flock of Canada Geese flying overhead meant that winter was either around the corner or that it was over. A honking “V” flock on the move  represented the wild call of the  north and nature’s seasonal pageant all rolled into one. Today, when the sound of a calling Canada Goose greets your ear it simply indicates that you are alive, equipped with hearing, and probably standing near a golf course. It also means that you should be looking down and assessing exactly where you are standing! A vast part of the Canada Goose population no longer migrates south in the winter. They have become a year-round source of fertilizer and companionship. Because of this, it is natural not to pay them too much heed on a day to day basis.

Once in a great while, however, these Canadian flocks will offer up something unusual. Different species or varieties of geese will hang out (or is it “ooht”?) with the locals, eh, and offer up some interesting sightings. Yesterday just such a flock stopped by Lake Erie Metropark along the Detroit River. This flock was a “two-fer”, as a matter of fact – there were two odd birds in the bunch.  I happened to be in the right place at the right time when it was reported that a “snow goose and something else ” was with a small flock of Canadas, so I stopped over to check out the situation. What I, and the others, saw was a dozen or so Canada Geese and two misfits.

The group was grazing on the grass along a seawall, and the small grayish bird on the left (see picture above) stood out like a sore thumb. To make a long story short, it appeared to be an immature Snow Goose. These northern breeders are one of the most common of geese in North America (estimated population at around 2 million birds) but they rarely show up in our eastern neck of the woods. Snows breed in the high north from Wrangle Island in Russia to James Bay, Canada and they migrate south to the west and Gulf coasts of the U.S. and Mexico. This path doesn’t normally bring them into Midwestern or eastern flyway routes.

To make this short story a bit longer, it would be nice to explain a few of the visual points that identify this gander as the snow variety. Take a look at this more detailed shot (here) and you’ll see it has a “sneer” on its pinkish bill. The guides will often refer to this beak feature as a grinning patch, but it is more like a Clint Eastwood sneer if you ask me. Part of this expression is due to the increased number of ridges on the bill edge that act to cut the tough grasses eaten by these birds. Another “Snow” feature is the small size – they are about 65% the size of a typical Canada (as you can see in the first picture).  As a snow goose, you might wonder why this guy isn’t white. The answer to this question is a bit more complicated.

Snow Geese come in two basic colors – the white and the so-called “blue” varieties.  It wasn’t until the early 1960’s when it was discovered that the blue and white birds were actually the same species that could interbreed at will. The white birds are snow white with black wing tips, while the  darker types are white faced with dark gray bodies and wing feathers.  The blue color is dominant, but a majority of the eastern birds are dark and the western birds are white. This errant bird is a young blue phase Snow Goose which is just coming into it’s own adult colors. It will eventually gain the fully white face and bright pink beak and legs as it enters it’s first breeding season.

When this bird flew away with his new-found flockmates (see here) it voiced another distinctive trait.  It’s honk was distinctly more nasal – almost tin-like – when heard among the mix of big honking Canadians. It could still be clearly heard as the gang flew out of sight over the tree line.

Now, the other bird in the flock (see below) was one of a totally different feather. This individual, looking almost like a Canada Goose attempting to dress up as a blue phase Snow Goose, seems to be a hybrid. Exactly who be da mamma and who da fadder isn’t clear on this bird except that one of his parents was definitely a Canadian, eh. The other parent was probably a Greylag (domestic farm) goose or a White-fronted Goose. Canada Geese can make whoopie with many other kinds of geese, and known hybrids involving these two other species run the gamut of shades. I could argue for either bird, but I don’t think it really matters in this case. Without a blood test, it can only be guesswork regarding the paternity of this fowl. All that can be said is that it is an interesting hybrid.

It was unusual, to say the least, to find two special birds in a small flock of regulars such as this. The odds are against it. One of the funny things about this goose gathering is that it also contained a regular Canada Goose with a bad limp. Like a gang of movie extras – the accidental arctic kid, the hy-bird, and the Festus bird- are like misfits banished to the flock of misfit geese (migrants from an island just to westward of the Island of Misfit Toys). I’m guessing that one of them also whistles instead of honks or that another wants to be a duck. At the very least, this assemblage casts some doubt on the “birds of a feather flock together” moniker.

February 15, 2009

One for the Cutworm

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:46 pm

A February thaw is always deceiving. Even the slightest hint of warmth triggers an inner switch that causes us to say things like “well, Spring is right around the corner” or “I’m ready for winter to end.” Even though a cursory glance at the calendar would show us that the glass of bitter winter brew is only half empty, we choose to ignore the facts. This is a survival tool.  It is as valid as any employed by the wild creatures of wood and water, although somewhat dumber in evolutionary terms

Actually, we have turned the seasonal corner – it’s just that the route is more like a roundabout than a city block. Animals are responding to the change in the air. You’ll note that the Cardinals are beginning to sing, Horned larks are now performing a head to head bobbing dance, and the opossums are hurling themselves at passing cars with renewed vigor.  While I certainly plan on returning to these topics in future versions of Naturespeak, I would like to now call attention to cutworms.

It was just before Valentine’s Day when I encountered a juicy little cutworm crossing my driveway (see below). The heavy rain accompanying the recent thaw apparently drove the beast from it’s winter hibernaculum (over-wintering spot) somewhere on the north side of the drive and sent it packing towards an undetermined place on the south side. I, being in the middle of the drive, spotted it and picked it up. Even though the day was “warm” by winter standards at about 38 degrees F., the sight still took me back a bit. Seeing a fleshy caterpillar this time of year provided a nice reminder of the different strategies used by animals to get through the season.

Even though I don’t know what kind of cutworm this is, I am fairly confident that it is indeed one. Cutworms are the larvae of a large group of moths in the Noctuidae group. Telling them apart is about as easy as keying out the Goldenrods. As a group they are all covered with smooth skin decorated with mottled coloration. They characteristically roll up in to a “C” shape when disturbed and this one performed on cue (as you can see above and here in better detail). In addition to becoming a circular letter of the alphabet, the caterpillar in question disgorged a healthy amount of green spit onto my palm. All of this is done to look unappetizing and I’ll admit that I wasn’t even tempted to pop it into my mouth.  If someone had offered me a $10 bill, I might have considered it but…oh, well we’ll never know will we?

Among cutworms, there are those -such as the Black Cutworm- that overwinter as a pupae. Others, like the Clayback, Dusky and Army Cutworms, overwinter as larvae. My February driveway discovery wasn’t any of these latter species as far as I can tell, but it was obviously one in the larval overwintering school of thought. This tactic requires the ability to build up anti-freeze in the body fluids (which I happen to know are juicy and green!) in order to attain the ability to super-cool. Super-cooling doesn’t mean the same as super neat or really “with it,” it means the body can still function at levels below the normal freezing point of water. In fact, cutworms have been known to resume feeding during mild periods over the course of the winter. Eating grasses in the middle of winter, now, that’s cool.

Gardeners and farmers certainly don’t think cutworms are cool. These creatures can wreak havoc on all forms of turf and vegetable crops. A typical feeding pattern for this larvae is to emerge from the ground and cut down a tender shoot in the manner of a miniature lumberman with a saw. The severed stalk is chewed up and the stumps are left as evidence. This habit explains how the group got its common name. This also explains why some people have spent their entire career trying to outwit these things.

The recognition of cutworm damage has entered into the general folklore of farming. In the days before chemical sprays, it was custom to plant four corn seeds to get one surviving one. “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the cutworm, and one to grow” was the motto. I’ve also seen this phrase as “One for the blackbird, two for the crow, three for the cutworm, and four to grow,” but even though the mathematics are the same, it’s more confusing. Either way, it was widely accepted that you will lose some of your crop to avian and insect pests, so you’d might as well get used to it. Crows and other blackbirds relish cutworms, by the way, so there might be some conversion factor needed to make this formula balance out at the bottom of the sheet.

I chose to release my worm, preferring to think he might freeze to death on his own sometime in the next few months. If he doesn’t, well, then he’s made the cut and deserves to live.  Hey, he’s only eating my yard and anyone who has viewed my yard will see that it will never make the cover of Golf Digest.  If, when it pupates in the spring and turns into a flying brown moth that goes into your yard, then you have my blessings to wipe it off the face of the earth. For now, however, it’s one for the cold cutworm.

February 12, 2009

Do Bunnies Line Dance?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:36 pm

Right now, smack dab in the middle of winter, is as good a time as any to step back and reflect upon the past few months. Snow conditions for the first half of the season have been very conducive to tracking. They have, in fact, been way too conducive. Six inches of white stuff would have been plenty, thank you. Given that it was so cold that every single solitary flake of snow hitting the ground was preserved, the levels built up incrementally from deep to very deep.

All this leads up to the fact that I’ve been accumulating track photos as fast as the snow has piled  up. I’ve not been able to make use of many of them as Naturespeak subjects, however, so I feel this is as good a time as any to pull a few out of the bag. There are a number of reasons why I will opt not to publish a track. The first and foremost reason is that I may have already featured a particular species – there are so many really really good squirrel tracks I can show you, in other words. Bad picture quality, a specialty of mine, and the lack of anything interesting to say are other factors. Finally, if I don’t know what animal made a certain track, I won’t display it either. Doing this would reveal my true ignorance.

There are a few tracks that rise above the level of the ordinary when it comes to story-telling. With that thought in mind, I would like to present a few leftovers for your consideration.

Some tracks are interesting solely because they were made by a creature that doesn’t usually have the opportunity to leave a track in the snow. A set of Iguana foot prints or a jellyfish trail would certainly be worth reporting, but I only have a set of woodpecker tracks (see below and a detail view here) that meet the requirements of this category. A detailed look at these snow marks reveals the  distinctive “X” pattern made by members of this tree-climbing clan. These birds have two forward pointing toes and two backward pointing ones that assist them in gripping vertical perches. Woodpeckers are common winter birds, but they rarely come to earth unless there is a compelling reason to do so. I can’t tell you what compelled this one to descend snow-ward. It took about a dozen hops and entered back into the air space without leaving any feeding evidence. There is a chance he did it just because it could be done!

Based on the size of these tracks, I would have to say they were left by a large woodpecker such as a Red-bellied or a Yellow-shafted Flicker. My money is on the Flicker simply because they spend a lot of time on the ground during the summer and I know that several of these guys are overwintering in the area.

The next set of tracks begs the question posed in the title of this piece: Do bunnies line dance?  Take a good close look at the set of Cottontail tracks pictured at the start of this column. I encountered these in a patch of new-blown snow along a paved path. What is especially fascinating here is that the longer hind foot tracks clearly indicate a sequential, and side by side,  foot placement right next to a series of small ovals where the snow was blown away to reveal the dark pavement underneath.

I quite simply have no idea what was going on here. Either this was the starting line for some kind of race – you know, as in “on your mark, get ready…” –  or we have evidence of rabbit line dancing. The small cleared patches could have been where the critter was licking snow or snorting out a blast of nostril air on the third and forth step of the dance. I do know that as the sun rose a bit higher on that day the whole thing became a receding hare line due to the rising air temperature!

My final exhibit  involves an opossum. These hardy marsupials sleep through the roughest part of the winter and emerge during brief thaws or breaks in the weather to search for food – or at least that’s what they’d have you believe. The set of tracks pictured below were made last week just as the current thaw began to set in. It appears to be a place where a hungry opossum grubbed through the snow for some hidden morsel. Although the deep snow obscures the identifying ‘possum “thumb” marks, a tail mark can clearly be seen. What is not so clearly seen is that there is a bottle cap sticking out of the snow at the far left side of the disturbance.

Take a look here, and you’ll see what I saw.  There was a crisp clean Budweiser bottle cap sticking out. Further investigation uncovered an identical bottle cap on the far right edge of the cluster of  ‘possum pad marks. The location was along a boardwalk running through a lowland woods and was far from any parking lot or road. I find it hard to believe that a sane human would uncork a couple of cold brews along a frigid nature trail in the middle of the winter. No, I’m afraid the only conclusion to be drawn here is that opossums drink beer and that they prefer Budweiser. This same animal left this set (see below) of tell-tale tracks in the snow leading away from the bottle cap site. You don’t have to be a traffic cop to notice that he was not walking in a straight line.

I do see some dangerous trends here. We have woodpeckers trying to walkpeck, bunnies line dancing, and marsupials engaging in frosty midnight drinking  binges. Earlier in the winter I came across another set of rabbit tracks which ended in a freshly extinguished cigarette butt.  What is nature coming to? I know for a fact that opossums and cottontails don’t carry money, so they have to get their booze and Marlboros through some illegal means. Scary stuff, eh?

There is a little bit of good news here, though. Apparently, given the absence of the bottles at the binge scene, ‘possums believe in recycling.

February 9, 2009

A Bearded Bower

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:54 pm

I called up my younger son, the Latin scholar, today and asked him a question. I was thinking about a nice winter seed plant called the Virgin’s Bower (see above) and came up with a semantic query regarding the name. The plant’s scientific name is Clematis virginiana which basically means “the climbing plant of Virginia” in dead tongue. I didn’t need him to come up with this one, since the old man has an extremely basic knowledge of Latin and can usually figure such things out – if he can’t, he simply makes it up.  My question was about the ending of the species name. It was such a small matter that I didn’t think it was worth making up anything about it.

Many early discoveries of the New World were classified as coming from Virginia, so they are labeled as such. A lot of living things, therefore, have Virginia in their Latin name. The White-tailed Deer, Great-horned owl,  Choke Cherry, Opossum, and the Virgin’s Bower all share this trait. The part that befuddled me was why their scientific names are officially listed as either “virginiana” or “virginianus” and  both forms mean “from Virginia.”  Take the Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, and the Oppossum, Didelphuis  virginiana for example.  These two animals are both “from Virginia” but they are designated with two different endings – “a” and “us.”  I asked my college scholar to give it to me simple. “These are probably masculine and feminine endings,” he answered. “The masculine form requires an ‘us’ ending and the feminine ends in an ‘a’.”  He actually said this in a much more technical manner, but that was the gist of it.

This left me with another deeper question, however. What is it that makes one animal masculine and another not?  Why is it that the ‘possum and the black cherry tree are considered in female terms while the horned owl and deer are burdened with masculinity? There certainly are manly ‘possums and effeminate deer out there. If there weren’t, there would be no little deer and possums, if you know what I mean. Think about it. Yes, I realize that in the scheme of things this is not an important question but it’s worthy of a few brain cells. Having just expended those few cells, I will now move on.

There is little doubt why the Virgin’s Bower name is feminized. The name, bower, can equally refer to a “woman’s private chamber” or a “leafy arbor”- in other words girly things.  It is probably no coincidence that it bears the name of the state of Virginia, which was originally named for the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth the 1st of England. I’m guessing that the frilly nature of the seed head somehow reminded folks of a queenly sort of boudoir decor. A greasy snarling opossum has no royal resemblance, I might add, so my interpretation can only go so far.

The less romantically inclined are compelled to descriptively call the Virgin’s Bower by the name of  “Old Man’s Beard.” This is a good description. Bowers produce wonderful puffy seed heads that stand out against the stark winter landscape. When framed in a bright morning light (see below), they invite you to closely examine their virgin beauty  in greater detail ( see here). Now, technically they are not truly virgin because they bear seeds, but we’ll let that one pass!  For some reason beyond my comprehension, some have chosen to call this plant the “Devils Darning Needle”. This decidedly negative and masculine designation is not a good name.

The summer appearance of the vine is somewhat non-descript. It bears serrated three-part leaves and white flowers along a winding 20 foot woody vine, but the whole thing blends into the greenery. Winter is the time when the Virgin’s Bower can show off it’s feminine charms. It is, as you can see, a bearded lady deserving of an “a.”

February 6, 2009

Sharpie on a Starling

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:25 am

And in one corner you have Sturnus vulgaris weighting in at two and three-quarter ounces and a wingspan of tee-welve and one-half inches. In the other we have the contender, hailing from the far side of the tracks, a 13 inch-spanner by the name of Accipiter striatus who tips the scales at six and one-half ounces on the nose.  Bing! The fight is on with a left dash for the corner by Sturny and a counter left by Ms. Striatus. Sturny delivers a right flight,then another left before the out-towner closes in. Wham. The Sturn is on the ropes. Striatus goes for the knockout and then the kill. Oh, this fight is over, ladies and gentlemen. In less than sixteen and three quarter seconds Striatus has defeated her opponent.

To tell the truth, I was late to the fight. It was over before I happened upon the cornfield ring just off Reinhardt road. I will admit to faking the action details, but the contenders, a Starling (Sturnus) and a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Striatus), were real and the result was as reported.  As you can see by the above photo (and this better shot here), the slightly larger Sharpie had just downed her blackbird prey and was getting ready to enjoy the fruits of her labor when rudely interrupted by yours truly. I was in my truck and she was just of the road. She definitely delivered the stink eye in my direction as you can see below.

I’ve come across quite a number of bird “kill sites” this winter but all were long after the event ended and the crowds had gone home. Snow shadows were the only record of these incidents. Here, finally, I was witness to the real thing. This “real thing” is not a rare event, mind you, but one only occasionally witnessed. If you have a bird feeder, it is very likely that you’ve seen this before, although the results were not always the same. The chase is always short and either the kill is made quickly or the prey makes a clean getaway.  Most of the time, the prey gets away.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest true hawks in North America. They are bird-eaters in the same vein as the larger Cooper’s Hawk and much larger Goshawks. Because of their size, these robin-sized predators are limited to perching bird fare which includes Robins, Sparrows, and, obviously, Starlings. The size of the chosen prey differs between the female and male birds because there is a notable size difference between the two. Males are the petite ones at 9-12 inches in length whereas the gals pick up where they leave off and reach sizes of around 12 -14 inches. The slightly larger females can tackle slightly larger prey. I believe the bird pictured here was a female based on a scale comparison between it and the lifeless bird beneath her, but I can’t really be sure. There was no lipstick or handbag in evidence. I can be sure that it was a juvenile bird, however.

First year birds have the full body size of adulthood, but they have yellow eyes and a brown streaked breast. Adult Sharp-shins have blood red eyes, befitting their occupation, and a rufous barred breast with a slate colored back. The fact is that most of the first year birds never get to be second year adults because of the difficulty of the lifestyle. It ain’t easy tracking down and killing living food and they themselves often fall victim to the larger members of their own clan.

I was able to flip into movie mode in anticipation that the bird would start to pluck her prey, as is tradition see here Unfortunately, my presence and the approach of another car resulted in a performance consisting of a series of nervous glances. She eventually launched into the air with her heavy cargo, made a cumbersome low flight over the road, and glided into the security of a nearby patch of evergreens. There, safe from prying eyes, she could begin the plucking and eating process in peace.

The snow at her eating spot will record what happened. There will be a few spots of blood, a pile of feathers, wing marks and a tail rub. Perhaps another curious naturalist will come upon the spot and take a photo of it, but this one is content with witnessing the real show for a change.

February 3, 2009

The Coyote’s Shadow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:03 pm

It was Groundhog Day and I was up in the air again. By that statement, I don’t mean that I was un-decided about something, but that I was literally up in a Raven Helicopter looking for deer. I was taking part in our annual aerial deer survey for the Metroparks and the opportunity to do this task is definitely a job perk for which I offer no excuses. We conduct the population count in order to determine the health of the deer herd and to assess their potential impact on the limited resources within our boundaries. Our team spotted around 200 deer wandering, bedding, running, (and at least one doing absolutely nothing) inside the borders of the four southern parks from Lower Huron to Lake Erie.

This is necessary work, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is also fun. It’s not my intention to detail the deer portion of the survey right now- I’ve done that before – but I will offer up a photo showing what three deer look like from 150 feet up in the air (see here).  As you can see, or not, these things are hard to spot. Your eyes have to be glued onto every feature of the landscape and more than once one of us would declare a sighting and then have admit “No, it’s a stump.”  Apart from sightings of the actual critters themselves, we saw lots of stumps, rocks, and deer-like things along with three bald eagles, twenty some Great Blue Herons, 5 million geese (estimate), a  Great-horned Owl on the nest, a beautiful Red Fox walking the edge of the frozen Huron River, and three pretty cool snowmen. The non-deer aspects of this survey definitely were the  most fascinating.

We did not see any woodchucks, however.  I suppose we could have flown over one or two, since dead frozen-stiff chucks would have looked very rock-like from that height, but I doubt it. Real woodchucks – the live ones – are underground at this time of year. They have no more sensibility than a rock when hibernating and certainly are without any innate ability to read winter weather signs. The rock, in fact, would probably be a better predictor over time but everyone takes them for granite. I just read that the Groundhog weather predictions over time have only been 37% correct regarding the end of winter! So, there you have it.

It was a bright sunny morning, however, and according to tradition this meant six more weeks of winter.  Punxsutawney Phil had already declared this by the time we entered into the frigid air-scape. No one asked the Punxsutawney Pebble, but it’s likely that it would have agreed.

Everything on the landscape was casting a shadow on this morning flight – including our own copter.  The single most fascinating sight that trumped everything, for me anyway, was the coyote sighting. We got a clear view of the canine as he attempted to avoid us while under the trees (see here at upper left). We circled once to get a better angle and this compelled the nervous beast to make a dash for it. It bounded over the clearing at breakneck speed, kicking up clouds of powdery snow with each forward leap, and provided a great shadow profile (see above) in the process.

Seeing a coyote cast his shadow on Groundhog Day certainly has some poetic justice to it. Granted, it’s meaningless poetry, but then again so is a lot of poetry. You can clearly see, even though the photo is a grainy enlargement, that the thing was in mid leap with his feet stretched forward and his pointy ears looking like horns. Coyotes run with their tails down, unlike wolves, so this appendage doesn’t make a shadow impression.

To give you a better idea of what we actually saw, here is a clearer picture of the coyote just as he was in mid-field (see here). He’s nearly lost in the pattern of deer trails with that view, but shows up better upon enlargement (see below). He was a big individual and probably would have wieghted in closer to the 40 pound end of the recorded weights for Michigan coyotes.

Watching the animal cover that piece of ground with such rapidity, I was prompted to wonder just how fast coyotes can run. A little homework puts that speed estimate at around 35-40 mph, with 43 mph being the fastest. Given his reaction to our large rotating metal bird, I would say our individual was performing  at his  personal best speed. Just for comparison, keep in mind that Greyhounds top off at around 39 mph, humans can run 25 mph if they are at their personal best,White-tailed Deer & Cats achieve around 30 mph, mice are clipping at 8 mph, and your average Garden Snail burns up the moss at .03 mph. Rocks don’t move unless pushed.

Winter, beginning in late January and running until early March, is the breeding season for coyotes. The females come into heat for only a few days during that time and this probably explains why this coyote was out and about during broad daylight. A male coyote has to make his “fast moves” before the game is over. It’s a safe bet, based on the coyote’s shadow casting, that winter will still have a firm grasp on our region by the time the mating season concludes. That weather prediction is strictly between you, me, and the rock by the way.

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