Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 31, 2009

A Quill Pig Interrupted

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:18 pm

Up in the north country of Michigan – north of the so-called Bay City/ Muskegon line – porcupine road kills are about as common as possum kills “downstate.”  Because of their naturally slow nature (top speed about 2 miles per hour) and nocturnal habits, porkies frequently find themselves failing to make to the other side of the pavement. Porcupines also happen to have a thing for salt and in their constant search for sodium they often resort to pavement licking for residual road salts. Needless to say, this practice is even more unsafe than your plain variety crossing habit. I’m not sure if it was saltiness or slowness that resulted in the collision that ended the career of the porcupine I picked up the other day along M-30 outside of West Branch (see here). I was appreciative, never-the-less,  of the opportunity to get a good close look at one of these unique forest beasts.

As a Naturespeak reader I invite you to peek over my shoulder as I perform the examination. How does one go about probing a porky, you ask? Of course you know that the answer is “very carefully”. It’ll take two installments to do this right, so please stick with me (pun intended).

 A majority of the features of this common creature are very uncommon indeed. They are, of course, the only quill bearing mammals in the region, but we’ll get to that in due time. There are many distinctive non-quill features to look at first. Porcupines are the third largest rodent found in the Americas and the second largest in Michigan behind the beaver. On average they span around 30 inches from head to tail and tip the scales at around 14 pounds. I wasn’t able to weigh my example, although it felt like a ten pound bag of potatoes…or should I say a ten pound box of nails! This creature has an overall body type like that of the beaver with a round head, no neck to speak of, large hindquarters, and a thick tail (see below). It’s hard to see their actual outline due to the dense covering of long stiff hairs that extend beyond the quills- some of which are 4 inches long. Most of the underfur is black, the quills are white, and the “true” hairs are reddish brown. There is a patch of short black fur, bordered by a forest of white quills,  that runs in a chevron shaped pattern down the back and along the entire top side of the thick tail.

The face is flat and covered with short black hair. With small eyes and short and rounded ears (see beginning photo), it’s no wonder that this fellow is nearsighted. Given the fact that  “pines” communicate with a host of squeals and teeth grinding it is reasonable to assume that they hear relatively well. Porcupines are all about scent communication, so possess a large nose and prominent nostrils to probe their scent-filled world. You may find it re-assuring that my road-kill example gave off absolutely no scent what-so-ever – good or bad. This was a very fresh little pig!

I found the feet to be fascinating. In fact, I would say that you haven’t really lived until you’ve shaken hands with a porky (see below). There are no quills on the lower legs so it’s safe to handle these appendages. Porcupines are flat-footed, which in the parlance of mammalogy classify them as plantigrade beasts. This means that they walk on their soles in the manner of bears, raccoons, and humans. Most other critters walk on their toes. Their tough sole pads have the look of pebbly gray plastic and the feel of a vinyl chair seat. There are four well-clawed toes on the front foot (see here) and five on the hind foot (see here). These claws work in unison with the pliable sole pads to allow this hefty beast to climb trees. The tail is also used as a brace much in the manner of a woodpecker to keep from backsliding. We all want to keep from backsliding don’t we?

Oddly enough, porcupines are prone to falling out of trees. Many show signs of healed bone fractures sustained from such accidents. In one study, over 30% of the examined quill pigs had suffered from fractures. On this note, you might have noticed the neat little puncture hole in the sole of the hind foot pictured earlier. This was likely caused by a self-inflicted quill wound. Yes, porcupines often poke themselves with their own weapons of defense. That pointy topic will have to wait until next time.

August 27, 2009

Not Just Hanging Around

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

I was prompted to return to the subject of Viceroys because of a beautiful green example I found earlier in the week. Viceroy butterflies, while always orange and black as adults, come in green or brown models as larvae. The brown versions are great poop mimics and these are the ones I’ve presented before. They are easy to spot but protected by their unappetizing crappy features. The green ones, on the other hand, are hard to spot against the leafy green of their chosen food plant (see above).  In this case, the chosen fare was a shrub willow – a typical food for these royal larvae who also go for populars, aspens, and cottonwoods.

As you can see, or not, his outline is purposely unpredictable and his wardrobe completely disorienting.  It’s hard to tell which end is which (although you can see the head at the lower end in this shot). In both views, the ‘piller is contorted into a defensive pose which presents a pair of spiny clubs as a deterrent. I was not deterred, so I took the creature in for some TLC and closer observation.

Less than four days later, this bumpy green eating machine ended his consumption days and began to prepare for bigger things. A horizontal leaf was selected for weaving a button of silk and, after grabbing this pad with his hindermost legs, he released his hold and suspended himself upsidedown (see below). This “J” pose indicated that the creature was about to pupate. You’ll note that all the green pigment has been re-absorbed and the thing took on a pale brown look. Big changes were beginning to occur at this point as the viceroy begins to literally digest itself.

Internally, the leg muscles, digestive tract, and mandibles are beginning to dissolve and the inner layer of skin toughens into a new textured surface.  There is no turning back at this stage. A day later the old skin was cast off and the form of a newly shaped creature was unveiled (see below). This chrysalis stage little resembles the caterpillar it emerged from because internally it is no longer a caterpillar – it is a butterfly in a juice bag. All the larval organs are rendered into goo (a process called histolysis) and the cells are being transformed into new adult organs.

Probably the best way to think about what is going on is to imagine a pile of legos. The original pile of building blocks – like cells- were used to build a Viceroy caterpillar. These same blocks are now being disassembled and re-arranged inside a toy box in order to create an adult with wings, antennae, and a sex drive. Instead of hands doing this job, however, tiny spots on the larvae’s skin called histoblasts or imaginal buds, are directing the re-construction effort.  I suppose you could call these creative moles!

The chrysalis may look like a dollop of drippy bird doo, but close examination reveals the outline of the wings, head, antennae, and legs of the future adult (especially in this frontal view). Breathing pores, called spiracles are evident on the sides of the abdomen. Viceroys are able to have three generations per year. This chrysalis, the result of the second generation,  will hatch out as an adult in a week or so. This winged version will mate, lay eggs (if a female, of course) and die. The tiny caterpillars that emerge as the third generation will not eat, but will instead roll themselves up in a leaf tunnel and wait out the winter. Next spring they will resume eating, growing and pupating.

For now we are left contemplating this ungainly looking chrysalis. The thing will wiggle a bit if touched, but for the most part it will hang like a still-life. The innards of this still-life are anything but still – the boiling stuff of creation is contained within.

August 24, 2009

Lucky Black Squirrels

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:42 pm

Black Squirrels are inspirational creatures. Their sleek form and slightly skunky appearance are always cause for a second glance. Most people can tell you if there are black squirrels in their neighborhood even though they may be clueless as to the whereabouts of the Grey, Red, or Fox Squirrels.

London, Ontario, for instance, is known for it’s black squirrels. This Canadian berg has even been known to tout itself as the “Home of the Lucky Black Squirrels.” Although this is not the backbone of their public relation campaign, the creatures have attained the status of small fame in that community.  Back in 1961, ten of these fortunate dark squirrels were imported to Kent State University in Ohio where they prospered and multiplied on campus. I must admit that I’ve never heard of Kent State’s annual “Black Squirrel Festival” before researching this peice, but that would be because my kids didn’t end up going to school there. If they did, I probably would have been the first one in line to get myself a Black Squirrel Festival T-shirt (you know, the plain black shirt with white letters saying “The Black Squirrel Fest at Night”.

If you are a member of a community that hasn’t recognized its population of black squirrels yet, you’d better get busy before the truth gets out. Black squirrels are really grey. They are, in reality, melanistic versions of Eastern Grey Squirrels – genetic “freaks'”of a sort that express an unusual amount of black pigment, or melanin. Some show more black than others and many exhibit a lighter brown tail (see below and here), but all are darker than the norm. The normal coloration of this species consists of a grizzled light grey coat with a white tummy and reddish brown sides (see here). On rare occasions, individual black squirrel pups are born within normal grey colored litters. The black gene is trumped by the grey gene in most cases, so this genetic trait tends to wash out after a generation or two. In the overall eastern North American population, the melanistic varieties appear every about every 1 in 10,000 births, but this figure is very misleading.

In fact, here in the northern part of their range, the darker versions predominate. As you move further south in their range, the ratio of black to grey individuals flip-flops until you find that there are few, if any, black individuals found in the deep south population. There is some evidence that the black eastern greys are better able to cope with lower winter temperatures, although the reason for this is unclear.

Even though black hair absorbs heat better, their blackness alone doesn’t appear to make much difference. Studies have shown that melanistic squirrels can generate and retain heat better than their gray siblings (three out of four doctors agree). All Grey Squirrels, light and dark, have a “venous shunt” at the base of the tail which aids in the thermoregulation department. Well, all this is fascinating, but I believe the Londoners, or whatever they call themselves, have the real answer as to why there are more black squirrels in the north. They are just plain lucky, that’s all!

August 21, 2009

Bob Right?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:49 pm

When I spotted a covey of Bobwhite Quail the other day, I instantly slammed on the car brakes as I performed a double-take. The fowl gang, consisting of about 17 immatures and a few adults, were lined up at the edge of the road where the mowed strip met a tall grass field. One by one they popped out of the cover, walked down the line in military fashion, and gathered as if contemplating a road crossing. My arrival elicited an immediate  change of plans but they allowed me to take a few hurried pictures before melting back into the long grass. Naturally, I was amazed that they didn’t flush.

I can’t really remember when I last saw or heard a real live local Bobwhite Quail. Let’s just say that it’s been a while – at least twenty years ago when I heard the familiar two note call issuing from the farm field across from my house. Quail are not regular Michigan birds. Although officially scattered  throughout the Lower Peninsula, they are not common here except in a few isolated rural pockets in the S.E. portion of the state. Even then, the population will vacillate depending upon the weather and farming conditions.

Even though they are called Northern Bobwhite Quail, these birds don’t do very well here on the extreme northern edge of their range. Severe winters will knock them out of the picture for years at a time. The species never had much of a grip on this soil but back in the “old days” when farming practices left brushy fence rows, waste grain, and woodlot cover they were much more common than they are now.  They are really much more comfortable in the piney barrens of Georgia.

My covey consisted of a mixed lot of equally aged birds escorted by a few adult looking birds.  The females, young and old,  were identifiable by their buffy colored throats and eye stripes and the males (see below) by their sharply contrasting white facial markings. Even against a green background they were well served by their cryptic body coloration (see here). From all appearances this was a natural family group. It was a large family, but within the realms of possibility. After the fact, I confirmed that a single clutch could contain up to 28 viable eggs, although 14 is the average. The family coveys stick together for balance of the season until joining with other families to form large winter flocks in October. In the lingo of wildlife management this move is called “The Autumn Shuffle.” August was too early for a “shuffle” time flock, so this had to be one family.

Just about the time I was convincing myself that I had encountered a nice natural group, the phone rang the next day and a friend asked me about some quail he had seen running  about the previous day.  He had seen the same group about a quarter mile away from my original location. I thought it odd that these things would be so stupid as to constantly expose themselves, but chose to answer in the negative when asked if these birds could have been released captives. I have frequently encountered cage-reared pheasants and turkeys that, once released, spent the rest of their short wild lives walking boldly down the center-lines of roads or walking up to coyotes. These quail at least showed a little bit of fear and, besides, who would be releasing a family group of quail into the wild at this time of year?

A swift answer to the mystery came via a phone call today from another friend. “Hey Gerry, ” he asked, “have you seen a bunch of Bobwhites running around lately?”  I replied suspiciously that I had. “Well, they’re mine. They all got out the other day and ran straight for the field behind my house.” That field was about 1/2 mile away from the road where I had originally spotted the birds.

Oh well, such is life. I’m really glad he called before I reported my find to local birders. In today’s birding circles, such a report is typically blasted across the internet landscape and binocular toting folk come from miles around to get in on the action. Jailbreak quail do not qualify for life listers, however.

There is an outside chance that these vagabond birds will adapt to life in the wild since they are a native species. There is also a chance that their young will grow up wild and free and that I will hear their calls ringing out on some crisp summer morning. There is also an equal chance that they will all be dead within a week, so it would behoove my birder friends to see them while they can (they are at Lake Erie Metropark by the way). One of the escaped birds, oddly enough, returned to it’s cage shortly after the big break. My friend informed me that it rushed back into the safety of the pen as quickly as it had rushed out hours earlier. Apparently at least one of these hand reared quail understood how difficult it is for his kind to survive in these parts.

August 18, 2009

Dog Day Foresight

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:37 pm

I really can’t imagine what any given Polyphemus caterpillar is thinking at any given moment. I’m pretty sure that a majority of their microscopic ganglia are firing off  food thoughts, however. There is simply no room for lust, politics, or soduku in their tiny infantile brains (not that the first two take up that much space). As larva, they have nothing else to do but eat. That is their job.  They begin life as 3 mm midgets and complete their task as  3 1/2 inch emerald green gummie giants (see above and below). It takes a solid month of munching hardwoods, lots of pooping,  and four changes of skin (five “instars”) to get there, but get there they do. “There” is a place called the dog-days of summer. It is at this time that this caterpillar begins to think thoughts beyond this time. His thoughts turn to winter even as the mercury plays around the 90 degree mark.

Even though it may seem a bit early to roll wintery thoughts about ones head capsule, the late summer Polyphemus is forced to consider his future. His time as a ‘piller ending, he must now answer those internal hormonal messages that say “build it and change.” He instinctively “knows” to build a weatherproof chamber in which he can pupate. The calendar and the temperature are meaningless in this regard. It is instinct and the ticking of an internal clock which prompts him to begin weaving strands of brown silk to loosely bind a few leaves together. These same leaves which were considered food but a few days before, are now viewed as mere structural supports. The time for eating is done.


The only immediate thing that guides the cocoon-making activity of the late summer Polyphemus is the setting sun. He waits until evening to begin the task. It takes a good part of the night to complete the job. Miles of silk, issuing from a pair of spinnerets located beneath his mouth, are laid out in increasing tighter patterns until a tight oval waterproof case is constructed. The silk dries into a firm casing having the texture of grocery bag paper. Finally, a milky white secretion is introduced into the casing and the cocooning part is done. Internally, the caterpillar sheds his skin one more time and converts into a brown Buddha-like pupae and begins the long wait until next summer.

Sometime later this fall the cocoon will likely  fall to the ground as the attached leaves turn color and take a fluttering flight ground-ward. This too is was anticipated. The caterpillar only attaches a few light threads to the branch itself. Other great silk moths, such as the Cecropia and Promethea moths, deliberately attach their wintering structures to the branch, but not the Polyphemus. Once on terra-firma, the cocoon and its resident Polyphemus pupae, will be buried by a protective layer of leaves.

Maybe it’s not right to call all this early preparation an act of foresight, since that implies some thought process on the part of the ‘piller, but it is instinctive foresight. Instinct is the cumulative thought of a million generations, so it tends to be right… most of the time.

August 14, 2009

The One that Got Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:41 pm

I was surprised to find a Luna Moth on the porch yesterday morning.  Even though this species is very common, it’s always a rare pleasure to come upon one of these emerald beauties – especially when they come to you.  This one, a handsome male decked out in white and maroon body fur,  cast a long shadow in the low angled light of early morning. It was apparent that he’d had a rough dawn, however, because he was missing both of his “tails.” Lunas normally have long trailing tails that extend an inch or two off each hind wing. The fact that he was missing his set indicates that he survived an attack by a hungry flycatcher and was granted one more day to carry on the gene pool.

Mid August is a bit late to be seeing an adult Luna flying about. Normally the species has only one brood in these parts, which means there is only one opportunity for a caterpillar to eat, grow fat, and pupate before the onset of winter. The adults die soon after mating, so you wouldn’t expect to see one past mid summer. It takes about five weeks to grow a caterpillar to full pupation size – at which point they spin a cocoon and overwinter. In the Ohio River country and parts below to the south, Lunas have time to complete two broods before jack frost nips things in the bud. Here in S.E. Michigan we are close enough to potentially host one of these second brooders I suppose.

There is a chance that my moth was a johnny-come-lately who simply arrived at the porchlight long after the party, and the girls, were gone. Whatever the case, he probably hung about looking for some beer bottles to recycle and then decided to wait out the day while suspended from the dark brick wall under the light. That, of course, was a big mistake since insect-eating birds make a habit of visiting this porchlight  as soon as the sun peeks over the trees.  A lonely fat Luna is a great breakfast treat for a  flycatcher used to surviving on lesser creatures. Having a set of  dayglow four inch wings, set against a dark wall, doesn’t do much toward hiding a lonely fat Luna from a hungry thin bird either. He might as well have put out a “Eat at Joe’s” sign. I have found several pairs of Luna moth wings – sans their fat little bodies – under this very porch light over the years.

Although I can’t say exactly what actually happened in this case, I’m confident that a bird made at least one predatory pass at the Luna and ended up grabbing the wrong end. Instead of getting a mouthful of juicy goodness, it got a beak-full of dusty moth tails. The moth, following instinct, dropped to the ground and kept out of sight as the frustrated bird flew off with a case of dry mouth. Thus the moth survived relatively intact. These tails, you see, are meant as decoy flares to thwart predators and are not just for good looks. They are for getting away not display.

Seeing that this fellow deserved some respect for his life-preserving efforts, I carefully picked him up (see here) and placed him in a protective shrub. Here is could spend the day in a place where his greeness was more concealing than revealing. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get the chance to actually pass on those courageous genes but his tale is one worth telling the grandpillers.

August 11, 2009

The Lotus Effect

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:09 pm

The American Lotus is a spectacular plant. With their giant blossoms, expansive circular leaves, and larger than life look they are inspirational (see here). Over the course of their lengthy summer bloom period they prompt us to spout poetry or to take artsy photos using non-artsy cameras. They elicit “wows” and silent admirational stares in equal measure. They even inspire “superheros” such as the downriver resident called the Blue Lotus who wields a large blue plastic sword, carries a parasol, and draws her special water powers from the lotus. People have eaten, worshipped, or channeled these incredible water plants for centuries, so it should be of little wonder that I feel compelled to bring up a few more Lotus related issues.

I’m not even going to mention the Lotus flower in this discussion, but will instead concentrate on the huge circular leaves. Unlike the Blue Lotus Lady, these magnificant structures have real supernatural powers over water. This feature is alluded to in an ancient poem entitled “The Virtuous Man,” where the chaste man is “not enslaved by any lust whatever, by the stain of passion he is not soiled. As in the water, yet unwet by the water, is the lotus leaf.”Before you react by saying “What the heck does that mean,” the lotus leaf’s water resistant powers are legendary. It is near impossible to get one of these leaves wet even though they are aquatic plants.  They are, in the parlance of science, “superhydrophobic.”

A drop of water instantly beads up like quicksilver when striking the surface of a leaf. All it takes is the gentle motion of the wind (or a hand) to swirl the bead about and pour it off without leaving any residue see the short video here. This water shedding ability, called the Lotus Effect, is caused by nano-sized wax papillae on the upper side of each epidermal cell. In simpler words, this means that the upper side of the leaf is covered with very tiny wax-covered bumps that force the liquid water to congeal and roll. The apparent purpose of this magical effect is to remove dust, dirt, and fungal particles from the leaf. This self-cleaning leaf  is indeed a pure and chaste leaf.

A lotus leaf submerged, like the poem says, remains resistant to water. When held under, the leaf surface takes on the look of a finely polished mirror and reflects the face of the virtuous man or woman pressing it down. When so submerged, the leaf also reveals yet another one of its fascinating traits – they breath the same virtuous air we do. The pale center spot on each leaf (see above) is a porous breathing hole where the plant exchanges gas with the air. This fact becomes clear when you observe a submerged leaf  and see a procession of bubbles issue from that location (see below and the short video here ). In the video example, I watched a steady stream of  18 equal sized bubbles pop out over the course of 20 seconds. This is air exhaled by the tubers deeply buried in the sediment.

The stem of the lotus is perforated with dozens of long air tubes (see here) which feed oxygen rich air down to the buried rootstocks, aka rhizomes or tubers, some 4 to 5 feet below.  Aquatic plant “roots” need air just like terrestrial ones do. Oxygen rich air is taken in through the surface of the leaf and sent down through one or two of the stem tubes. The spent air is returned to the atmosphere via another set of tubes which dead end at the porous surface of the center spot. This is the air that is seen bubbling out. So, in a primitive sort of way, the plant is breathing in and out.

In case you are wondering,  lotus plants can drown if deprived of air- that is unless the Blue Lotus Lady intervenes.

August 8, 2009

A Black Crystal

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:37 pm


Every stage of the Monarch Butterfly life cycle is fascinating, but the caterpillar and adult stage get all the attention. I must admit that I experience Monarch overload in this regard. It’s not that I ignore these stages, it’s only that I fail to get too excited about them due to their overly-common nature. I still raise them on occasion in order to glimpse the other metamorphic stages that are less commonly seen such as the egg or chrysalis stage. The eggs are structurally beautiful, but basically too small and ephemeral to attract much press. Emerging caterpillars eat them as soon as they  hatch. The emerald green chrysalids, on the other hand, are works of unparalleled natural art. Real artworks -such as the jewelry creations of  Barbara Bosco & Jude Rose – are inspired by these structures. It took the recent “destruction” of one of these perfect chrysalid packages to renew my Monarch interest.

In the Monarch world, every life stage must end before the next can begin. A chrysalis lasts for only about two weeks. Any chrysalis going beyond this time has failed to do its job. It must be destroyed, in other words, before it can justly be considered worthy. Near the end of its determined time, around day 31 in the cycle, the thing appears to become black.  On some individuals, the blackness is the result of  an attack of a fatal virus called the “Black Death” and these truly,not figuratively, die. On healthy individuals the skin on the chrysalid becomes clear within a day of its destruction. It is at this time that the black and orange features of the inner butterfly are dramatically revealed (see above). This stage, which I’ll call the black crystal stage for lack of a better name, is starkly beautiful and frightfully temporary. It is worthy of its own jewelry line in my opinion (see another view here).

The features that really stand out at this stage are the multiple gold spots which form a line over the rump along with the singular gold highlights about the frontal portion. No-one is quite sure why these golden lumps exist. That they originate from the reflective cardenolide chemicals found in the milkweed food plant is well established, but little is known beyond that. In the 1970’s Fred Urquhart, the guru of Monarch research from the University of Toronto, performed a set of experiments which indicated that these spots may have something to do with scale formation and color. Little research has been done since that time, unfortunately, so we’ll just have to be satisfied that they are simply “pretty.”

The Monarch that ultimately destroyed this temporary jewel emerged about three hours after the black crystal pictures were taken. It was a very delicate and proper female (see above and here). She took off without ceremony later in the day as I held her up into her new airy element.  In addition to leaving my hand behind, the butterfly also abandoned the shattered remains of her former self without any regrets (see below).

August 5, 2009

The Eyes Have It

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:43 pm

I got more than I bargained for when I returned to the Wilson State Park shelter at sunset. The ancient building, one of those stone & timber buildings probably built by the CCC in the 30’s, sat on the shore of Budd Lake. By day it served people, but it was also obvious that it served some of the natural inhabitants of the park as well.  The southeast corner of the structure showed evidence of a bat colony hidden somewhere within its attic space. At that location, the rock wall was spattered with guano –  bat droppings laid down by the tenants as they re-entered their belfry. I arrived shortly after sunset to see if I couldn’t see the bats exiting the colony. When I arrived, however, I found that I was not the first in line.

A family of raccoons were standing at the peak of the roof just to the west of the suspected bat lair (see above). There were three of them comprising a family of an adult and two good-sized young. They all looked a bit surprised at my arrival – expecting , no doubt, to have free and solitary reign of the place now that darkness was descending. I was not there to watch raccoons, so I too was a bit put out. I snapped a few shots just to pass the time before “bat-time” arrived.  Seeing the resulting eye shine pictures did get me to thinking about nocturnal vision for a moment (see another here). Normally, one doesn’t see this kind of view until just a few seconds before vehicular contact along a dark stretch of roadway.

Animals with reflective peepers, such as raccoons, have a layer in the back of their eyes called the Tapetum lucidum. This Latin term literally means “bright tapestry.”  It is sort of like a shiny space blanket composed of reflective crystals. The layer is located behind the retina, or focal point, of the eyeball and serves to reflect the available moon or starlight  back through the photo receptors of the retina.  The result is light amplification and excellent night vision. Lots of nighttime critters have this feature. Cats, dogs, opossums, owls, and deer count themselves among the lucidium set. That “deer in the headlight look”  is due to the back-lighting of this shiny eye tapestry. Raccoon eyes give off a yellowish glow, as do those of most cats and dogs. Occasionally, an oddball cat will have one yellow and one red reflective eye because they are handmaidens of Satan.

Our local bats do not have a lucidium tapetum, by the way. These creatures long ago replaced their need for night sight with an elaborate system of sonic pulses – they “see” with their ears, in other words. They can see alright during the day, but apparently can’t see any better at night than we can! I was able to confirm these facts as the darkness deepened and the bats started to exit from their lair. Normally bats begin their night flight about 12-15 minutes after sunset. On this night, that time was reached about 9:20 or so.

I wasn’t actually aware that the bats were even out until I snapped a few more flash shots of the befuddled raccoons. It was getting quite dark by that time. It quickly became apparent that the flashes were also freezing the images of some of the passing bats. They were invisible to my eye (which is also without a reflective night vision layer), so I just kept on blindly popping off the flash in the hopes I would catch a few of the bats in my camera frame. After all, they were the ones I was interested in. It took about a dozen tries, but I eventually came up with a few decent shots (see below and detail here).

The sight of a flying bat, wings and tail outstretched and mouth open, is a good thing. These fellows, which I believe were Big Brown Bats, were actively snapping up the flying insects that fluttered about my head. True to fact, not a single one reflected back any eye-shine. It was nice to get such solid confirmation regarding something you’ve read about. It was also nice to discover that I had inadvertently driven the raccoons back into their roof den. These reflective roof rats were apparently stunned by all the paparazzi flashing and elected to retreat until later in the night.

August 2, 2009

Just Another Northern Michigan Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:41 pm

I awoke before the sun rose and ventured down to the edge of Budd Lake, located in the “near north” country of the Northeastern Lower Peninsula. A sign in the adjacent town of Harrison declares that there were “twenty lakes within twenty minutes” nearby- confirming that it was near impossible to witness a sunrise without a lake-view in these parts. A gang of noisy crows had been carrying on for some time before I ventured to the sandy shoreline, but things were otherwise quiet.  Gently migrating clouds of mists drifted over the water and obscured the silent cabins and scattered docks lining the opposite shore. The crisp air and early hour insured that the occupants were still curled up in their beds – leaving the lake to show it’s wild side.

About twenty minutes before sunrise, the haunting call of a loon echoed over the water from the north end of the lake ( listen here ). There is no more evocative sound than the “A-hey-hey-yah” chant of the loon.  The bird claiming this lake only called for a minute of two at a time and then only during the dim times of the day at  dawn and  sunset. This was enough, however, to establish the mood. On this morning, a bald eagle drifted into the scene and flew off over the silhouetted white pines on the horizon. Ah, just the start of another typical Northern Michigan day.

Down in the shallows, a sunfish slept while suspended just a few inches over the parallel ripples of the sandy bottom (see above). Snail graffiti, wiggly lines traced by a wandering gastropod, broke the regularity of the sand pattern next to the fish. Only a few involuntary flaps of the pectoral fins kept the panfish vertical as he dozed, but the tail end sunk down on occasion. I walked carefully so as not to disturb the fish, but it it awoke anyway and quickly dashed off to the depths.

A muskrat bobbed to the surface just as the sun began to peek over the treetops and broke the still water with a set of silver V waves (see beginning picture). It swam parallel to the shore, about twenty feet out,  and then suddenly veered straight for land. Cautiously, it stepped out of the water and ventured up into the vegetation- looking hesitant and somewhat guilty about leaving his element. After about a minute landside, it sprinted (as fast a short-legged ‘rat can go, anyway) back to the water and dove in with a splash. He was carrying something round and green in his mouth. The object turned out to be a little green apple from a gnarly feral tree which grew only ten feet from the water’s edge. Showing the kind of appreciation reserved for such a rare seasonal treat, the ‘rat consumed his prize slowly and patiently (see below) and then ended the feast with a bout of armpit scratching (see here) before returning for more.

The muskrat was dependant upon finding fallen apples, so his pick was undoubtedly sparse. I picked a few of the larger apples and threw them onto the ground as an offering of sorts before I left the shore to pursue the rest of my day. 

I observed a lot over the course of that day, but there is only enough room here to record that it all lived up to northern Michigan standards . The fuzzy fruit of the beaked hazelnut (see here) provided one of the many natural moments, but it was an encounter with one of the human residents that topped off the day. My wife and I encountered a little boy named Jacob who lived in a little cabin community called Wooden Shoe Village – located on, you guessed it, Wooden Shoe Lake. Wooden Shoe is actually an impoundment of the Titabawasee River which doesn’t look anything like a wooden shoe! This lake was, in fact, named after the Wooden Shoe Bar that still sits on the east bank. I’m not making that up.  The west bank cluster of cabins, on this same body of water, is called White Star and is named after yet another bar.

I saw Jake earlier in the day as he played with his friends. Two of them were on rusty bikes and one pulled a wagon. Jacob was rolling down the dirt street on a vintage (and seatless) red Sears pedal tractor equipped with an impressive antler hood ornament. I’m not saying that such a sight could only be found here, but his choice of decor and vehicle certainly spoke volumes here in hunting camp/cabin country. I tracked him down later and snapped his portrait (see below).

According to his mom the antlers came from his grandfather. The eight-point rack was up on the wall for a while, but Jacob really wanted to nail them to his tractor. His sister came up with a better attachment option when she scavenged up a roll of black electric tape. One roll of tape later, the rack was firmly affixed onto the hood over the grill.  There probably has never been such a cool chain-driven
Sears Pedal tractor in existence.  Jacob’s gap-toothed smile certainly reflects his pride in his lean red machine.

His smile also amply defines my sense of what things were like on this beautiful Northern Michigan day.

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