Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 27, 2009

Common Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:56 pm

If I’ve ever seen a prettier Painted Turtle I can’t recall. My wife and I were out for some early morning fishing on “our” lake when we noticed a turtle poking about in the vicinity of our bobbers. Pretty soon, my bobber went straight down and I set the hook in anticipation of our first edible sized perch of the day. Unfortunately, the creature at the other end of my line turned out to be a medium sized turtle. He was firmly hooked in the bony upper plate of his mouth and it took a long minute to pry the barbed tip out. We were both upset – he at being unceremoniously yanked out of his element and I at wasting a perfectly good worm. As I handled the creature, however, his intense coloration and perfect condition began to play pleasantly on my eyes and I slowly came to the realization this was the perfect example of his kind.

It is easy to take common things for granted.  I am as guilty as anyone of giving Painted Turtles the short shrift because they are so dog-gone common. Oh sure, I’ll still stop to look at them but will barely break stride to do so. They had become like deer and raccoons in my world view. But this one cleared the glaze from my eyes and re-introduced himself as living proof that every creature is worthy of consideration and re-consideration. Heck, if I were an East Indian or Australian, this would be an incredibly new sight. Blimey, as a Michi-merican I need to be reminded of that every now and then.

One look will tell you why this beast is called a Painted Turtle. Although there is a faint red racing stripe down the middle of the smooth carapace (top shell) and the individual scutes (plates) are lined with red (see here), the real paint job is evident along the bottom edge of the shell (see below). Here, bright scarlet shapes, set against a deep olive background, are accented with arcs of yellow dots. I’d say this pattern is vintage 70’s op art with a hint of Italian Miliflori.  Yellow facial markings and heavy leg and tail stripes add some clown like pizazz to what otherwise would be a plain olive and yellow reptile.

Two features mark this swimming harlequin as a male. First of all, the long red-striped tail extends well beyond the margin of the plastron (bottom shell). The placement of the cloaca, the turd end of the that is evident as a swelling about a third of the way along the bottom side of the tail, is key (see here). Physically this allows the male to mate with the female by curling his tail down and around here upper shell. The most telling marks of masculinity on this Painter are the long white-tipped toenails (see below). In the world of pond turtles only the males possess the long painted fingernails. They use them to attract females with “come-hither” waves and to tickle the sides of their necks.

Even the paddle-like back feet are works of adaptive art (see here). All of the toes are fully connected by a web and the innermost toe is reduced to a flipper. All the feet are used for swimming. The hind feet provide the propulsion and the front feet serve for directional and sexual orientation.

I slipped this fellow back into his element with some slight regret. The glassy surface of the lake reflected every detail of the cloudy morning sky above and the groves of fiery fall maples along the near shore. His introduction broke that mirrored stillness with a set of slow concentric ripples. The ripples were not long for the world and they quickly melted back into the smoothness. Both of us had other things to do.

We caught several large fish after this event and later cooked them over a roaring cedar wood campfire, but it was the one that “got away” that made the deepest impression of my day.

September 23, 2009

What Would Gerridae Do?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:42 pm

Don’t tell anyone, but I can walk on water. Mine is strictly a seasonal talent, mind you. I can only do it during the wintertime but my ability is real none-the-less. I happen to share this limited talent with a group of creatures called Water Striders. This group of insects restricts their water walking to the warm season only so you could say that we trade off talents so that we can cover the entire year. Oddly enough, their family name – Gerridae – is spelled exactly the same as my first name which is Gerry. You may think this coincidence, but I hardly think so. Beyond this remarkable set of similarities we share little else.

Water Striders have been called by many names. “Jesus Bug” is perhaps the most colorful, but they are often mistakenly called “Water Spiders.” They are neither divine or arachnoidal, however. They are simply true insects with six legs and three body parts plus an ability to defy gravity. Specifically Water Striders are classified as True Bugs. This means they have so-called half-wings with an inner hard and an outer soft portion, and they suck their food through a straw-like mouth. They share billing with the likes of stink bugs, box elder bugs, and the aquatic Giant Water Bugs.

Striders are aquatic insects but they can’t swim like their giant bug cousins. They are air breathers that live life on the delicate film at the surface of the water. Structurally they are adapted to this lifestyle by having four of their six legs elongated to distribute their weight. By so doing only limited contact is made with the meniscus layer of the water and the surface tension remains unbroken.  Should they accidentally break through this layer they would be trapped and suffer a drowning death. Life on the positive side of the surface allows them to skate about as if on ice and dine on other less fortunate insects that are ensnared by the water. they leap great distances like an Olympic skater if such a move is required to pounce on prey ( a move I have perfected during my seasonal water walking, by the way).

Their third pair of legs are reduced to grasping tools that look like tiny preying mantis appendages.  When a moth, or some other non-water creature, falls to the liquid surface, the striders seize it and proceed to suck it dry using their straw mouths. They are not restricted to live prey. Any dead thing will suffice as long as it has a juicy component. I caught this group of striders sipping the rotting slime off of a dead sunfish last year (see below). I’ll bet life doesn’t get any better than that, eh?

The striders off my Dollar Lake dock provided a great opportunity to get a closer look at my soul mates.  Apart from carrying on their daily business of water walking and sucking, they spent a good part of their time resting on the surface of the lily pads (see below).  If you look closely at this last shot you’ll notice a few things. First of all, there is a nymphal, or baby, strider in the center. Secondly you’ll see that one of the individuals has some red spots on it (look closer here). These are larval water mites hitching a ride. They will eventually drop off and carry on a completely aquatic life.

It was hard to tell if this parasitized water strider noticed his ruby-colored cargo. He showed no signs of irritation or annoyance and carried on as if nothing was amiss. Personally, I would be very irked. I guess a Jesus Bug can be much more forgiving.

September 19, 2009

Along Came a Spider

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:53 pm

Goldenrod crab spiders are well near impossible to see when in their proper place. When nestled in amongst the bright yellow flowers of a Goldenrod flower they become deadly masters of disguise able to grab visiting insects with impunity.  When outside of their flowery element, however, the creatures enjoy no cryptic benefits. It was easy to spot the individual pictured above because it was creeping across an expanse of subtle brown bricks. It looked more like a neon yellow lemon-drop than a hidden stealth killer. I’m not sure how this beast ended up climbing that wall, but the chance encounter provided a nice opportunity to appreciate her eight-legged glory.

This spider has a lovely bottom, you must admit. Those red markings give that ample bottom the appearance of a somewhat contorted happy face balloon (see below). The smooth body skin and lack of “hair” add to her slightly beguiling charms (once you get past those eight eyes, that is).

This beauty has rear legs which are significantly shorter than those in the front. The elongated first pair of legs are held open like the jaws of a trap until some unsuspecting prey ventures near enough to be ensnared in a deadly embrace. This physical feature makes them look very crab-like indeed. The fact that they tend to walk sideways and backwards only enhances this crabby image. There are hundreds of crab spider species and all share this distinctive appearance. It is also interesting to note that this eight-eyed creature actually has and un-equal set of eyes to match that un-equal legging set-up. One set of eyes actually points backward for the most part. This set is placed on the end of two short stalks located on top of the head. It would be tempting to suggest this rear-facing pair serves as hindsight when the crab spider goes into reverse, but I can’t back that statement up (pun intended).

These spiders do not make webs or wrap their victims in silk – they simply suck their victims dry, drop the empty carcass, and wait for the next meal to come flying in. They do utilize silk to lay down a safety line as they wander about.  As the blooms fade, the spider must change flower heads on a regular basis in order to keep up with the freshest flowers. Should they lose their grip and start to fall off the plant, their safety lines keep them from completely dropping to the ground.

Goldenrod spiders can change colors if they have to. If they venture into a patch of white mountain mint or aster, they can switch from yellow to white in order to blend in, although it takes around six days to do so. It takes over 10 days to switch from white back to yellow, so you could hardly call them quick change artists.  This brick walking example will never be able to match her new found background no matter how hard she tries.  If she was embarrassed at her predicament, she showed no signs of it. As I left her, she snapped into hunting mode and stood motionless with her arms open wide for prey (see below). Far from being crabby, she was obviously a cheerful optimist.

September 16, 2009

Rockabye Eagle

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:03 pm

It’s not something that you want to do often, but it needs to be done. Every now and then you have to get hold of your captive Bald Eagle and give him a vaccination shot for his own good. The West Nile vaccine must be administered via a needle by a real veterinarian. This medication can’t be dusted onto his dinner rat or stuffed into the mouth of his filet o’ fish. When your eagle is not an “on the hand” type bird, that means you need to get control of him before your vet can properly poke him. Actually, the whole process is a bit different than you may think.

If you are a regular reader, you may recall that the Lake Erie Marshlands Museum received an injured captive eagle named Luc about two months ago. Since that time, the bird has adjusted nicely – eating like a pro, taking visitors in stride, and generally endearing himself to thousands of visitors. Like his free-roaming kin, Luc is at risk of contracting the West Nile virus. Unlike free-roaming eagles, however, captive birds can be treated and it is our responsibility to give Luc the best of care.  The West Nile Virus appeared on the North American scene about ten years ago. This nasty bug  is transmitted by mosquitoes and is amplified by bird hosts (Humans can contract it but can’t transmit it). Some 200 wild bird species have been recorded with the ailment, although crows and robins appear to be the primary carriers.  In short, West Nile can make it’s host very sick and, in the case of birds, can be fatal.  The recent death of a pair of eaglet chicks in the nest has been tentatively chalked up to West Nile.

It’d be nice to say that the current vaccines provide a complete chemical barrier against this virus. It ain’t necessarily so. The most widely used medication is a horse vaccination made from a killed virus called Fort Dodge something or other (can you tell I’m not the vet in this story?). “Our” vet, a raptor specialist named Andrew Granowski from the Canton Animal Clinic, has elected to use another type of vaccine whose name I won’t even attempt to repeat. According to Andrew, and a whole host of other specialists, there is little proof that either treatment is totally effective . But, they are better than nothing.

At any rate, the treatment requires a good close look at the “subject” so the experience is akin to a regular check-up. That alone is good enough reason to perform the task. Our bird already received his first shot three weeks ago and the occasion of his required booster shot provided an opportunity to get a few pics of the affair. Let’s just say that the first time went well. This second time, we had an audience. A family of three were gathered at the screen to watch the three of use (Paul Cypher was the third hand and cameraman). When told we were going to give Luc his shot, one of them said, “oh, does that mean you are going to shoot a tranquilizer dart at him or something?” When I told them that I was just going to walk in and grab him, they crowded up to watch – expecting some blood.

 Luc’s initial reaction to these check-ups is equivalent to that expected from any species – he doesn’t like it. He has free reign of his very large cage and has the ability to perform limited flying. The second he spotted me walking in with my giant gloves on, he lept from the perch to the ground and ran for the far end of the enclosure. Paul blocked his route as I crowded him to the nearest corner. Eventually, he dropped down and waited for me to make the next move. My grab was quick, but not what I wanted. I had to be satisfied with pinning him with his back on the ground with a firm grasp on his powerful talons (see below). During this whole sequence, the bird never made a noise or attempted any aggression what-so-ever.

In this awkward position, the vet was able to make a hasty examination of the eagle (see here) before I was able to free my left hand and cradle the bird in my arms (see below). At this point, the syringe was un-capped and the dose injected (about 1 cc) directly into the breast muscle to the left of the breastbone. Dr. Granowski rubbed the injection spot with his finger immediately before placing the needle. This gentle touch caused Luc to raise up his belly feathers to expose his skin beneath as if resigned to his fate.  Once the deed was done, Andrew looked him over and pronounced that he looked “very good”.

I held onto Luc for a short while longer as Paul took the opportunity to clean the cage up a bit. Luc is molting many of his old feathers and the down and tail feathers are scattered about the enclosure. You can’t do this when the bird is free-perched without un-nerving him. Apart from the wing problem, Luc is blind in his left eye and I was able to get a nice close look at the injured eye (see here). It is an old, albeit well healed, injury that looks like a torn iris.  You can compare this eye with his healthy one in the view below.

One can’t help but admire the massive hooked beak found on a Bald Eagle such as Luc. Of particular note in this close up view is the fleshy cere that surrounds the nostrils. Given the position in which I was holding him, you’d think he would have happily taken the opportunity to take a chunk out of my left breast (thank God I don’t wear a nipple ring!).  Luc took no such advantage and patiently waited until I placed him on the ground and he returned to his perch.  He has definitely earned my respect and I can only hope I have earned his.

September 13, 2009

So Called the Fairy Ground

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:41 pm

If you walk around a fairy ring nine times, they say one of two things will happen. Either you will open up the portal to the elfin underworld (a place where midget gangsters hide, I guess) or you will neutralize any magical spells emanating from that ring. These are potentially contradictory results, but such is the way with magical things – they are ephemeral and subject to whim. I can say for certain that dizziness is the 3rd verifiable  result of walking around a  fairy ring nine times. What are Fairy rings, you dare ask? Well they are ring or crescent-shaped markings evident in grassy situations (see above). They are caused by fungi, not little fun guys.

For centuries, these circular patches have been assigned magical origins. Circular things are always of alien origin, aren’t they. Think of crop circles, flying saucer landing marks, and pancakes (yes, waffles are earthly but pancakes are heavenly). These patches, often seen in woodland openings or open wet lawns, are places where elves apparently came out to dance at night. Some fairy ring growths look like they had been trampled by hundreds of tiny maniacal feet while others look as if they were fertilized by pixie sweat. The English poet Michael Drayton expressed this belief when he penned these lines in the early 1600’s : “and in their course make that round, in meadows and in marshes found, of them so called the Fairy Ground, of which they have the keeping.” O.K., I didn’t quite understand that either, but it sure was literary wasn’t it.

In reality, the subterranean world beneath a Fairy Ring is populated by countless tiny mycelium forming a thready mat of fungal fibers. When moisture conditions are just right these fibers send up fruiting bodies called mushrooms. The mushrooms dance upon the earth for a few magical days until melting back into the earth. Oddly enough, scientists are a bit baffled by these structures and why they grow in circular patterns. There are over 50 species of mushroom that form Fairy Rings. Some leave a ring of dead grass after the mushrooms fall away while others leave a ring of super green grass to mark their location. In at least one scenario, the fungus mat uses up the nutrients in the soil and are required to expand ever outward in order to find new ground.

The recent rains prompted many local fairy rings to erupt into chorus lines (see above). As you can see, these elves are not especially tiny – they were, in fact, large white gilled mushrooms. Some were close to eight inches across and, although not towering in stature, were fairly tall. They were definitely lords of their rings! I couldn’t place the species, but they resembled a type called Chlorophyllum. The gills , the spore-bearing structures under the hood, were slightly purplish in color (see here and here). Whatever the type pictured here, they are of the green ring type. In this case, the breakdown of the mycelium threads produced a nitrogen rush which in turn provided a jolt of energy – a goose you could say –  to the late season grass. In fungal discussion circles, this is known as a type II fairy ring. In type I rings the grass turns brown.

Although Fairy Ring mushrooms have a brief magical appearance above ground, they live the most of their lives underground. Don’t be tempted to underestimate them or assign them any temporary nature, however. These thready colonies are long lived and massive in nature. Some of the older circles can encompass a huge area and contain miles of intertwined fibers. It is worth remembering that one of the largest organisms on earth is a colony of lowly mycileum threads (located in Michigan) estimated to be over 1500 years old and weighing over 21,000 pounds! Now those are magical numbers.

Tread lightly upon the next Fairy Ring you encounter lest your cloddy feet disrupt the gentle pattering of mycelial pixies.

September 9, 2009

Dead Stick Walking

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:51 pm

There are over 40 species of Walking Sticks in North America, but I’m pretty sure that the one I encountered was the so-called Northern Walking Stick (Diapheromera femorata).  It helps to know that this is one of the commonest regional types and that it has been previously recorded in Michigan. Thomas Say, the great nineteenth century naturalist, named this particular species back in 1824 (along with thousands of other insects announced for the first time in his American Entomology). The different types all look pretty much alike to the untrained eye. When walking sticks aren’t walking, they are hard for any eye – trained or untrained -to see. Their combination of cryptic coloration, slender form, and slender habit all contribute to their ability to blend in and disappear. The stick insects are classified as Phasmids – a word based on the Greek “phasma” which means “spectre” or “spirit.”

The only reason I spotted this free spirit was that he was unsuccessfully attempting to mimic a black wire fence. Frankly he stood out like a sore thumb because fences are apparently not within their talent sphere. He was in proper protective pose when first encountered (see here)with the antennae and first pair of legs extended straight out from, and in line with, the rest of the body. The remaining two leg sets were set out at perpendicular angles somewhat imitating the angles of the wire.  Normally it is instinctive habit among these creatures to freeze into this position and let their coloration do the rest. Sometimes they will even rock back and forth in a rythmic manner as if blowing in the wind.

Once touched, however, they give up the cryptic thing and become running sticks. This one, although not breaking any land speed records, did well – considering he was formerly a dead stick! I fetched him (that’s what you do with a stick) and allowed him to circle around, over, and around my hand before transferring him to the security of a hanging grape leaf (see above and here). Once back onto a natural substrate, he stopped moving and began to consider a return to stick form. This allowed for some time for a little close observation before letting him resume his spectral life. 

It’s hard to see, but walking sticks are related to crickets and mantids. If you look real close you can kinda see it in their eyes. Apart from revealing itself as a Northern Walker, this individual displayed the proper traits of a male. The brownish coloration is typical of the gender as are the pair of mating claspers (see here) at the tail end. The head end (see below) is not much different from the rest of the body except for the presence of a pair of beady eyes and extremely long hair-like antennae. Females are much plumper than the males (no commento) and tend to be greener as well.

Sticks are forest insects. They feed on a wide variety of leaves, including tree and grape leaves, and spend nearly all their time in the tree tops until they die, along with the leaves they feed on,  late in the fall. About the only time that these sticks are on the ground is when they hatch out of their eggs in the spring. The females do not descend to the ground in order to lay those eggs but instead elect to drop them there from a great height. Each tiny egg is a shiny black & white capsule that looks like a miniature version of a dried bean.  It is said that when a large population of walking sticks are laying, the dropping eggs sound like raindrops on the dry forest floor. You could say that the sticks are planting themselves.

September 6, 2009

Goatsucker on High

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:18 pm

Nighthawks are part of a group of insect eating birds known as Goatsuckers. This less than flattering name originated from an archaic farmer belief that these fowl were to blame when their dairy goats inexplicably went dry. They were believed to sneak into the barns at night and suckle milk from the goats.  This belief, of course, had no basis in fact other than the observation that nighthawks were twilight creatures frequently seen hovering over farm-lots and that they happened to have very large mouths. Those mouths, however, are exclusively meant for scooping insects out of the air and not for draining earthly udders. 

Except for a few conspiracy-believing back-hills farmers who wear tinfoil helmets, no one suscribes to the goat-sucking theory anymore. Unfortunately, the name remains as the name of the order to which Nighthawks belong.  Common Nighthawks, the species native to our neck of the woods (see illustration here) are familiar summer residents. We’ll forget the fact that they are in a specific group of goatsuckers called the Nightjars – a equally confusing name – and, even though they are called Nighthawks, are not hawks. All this is fascinating, but my primary intention here is to put semantics aside and call attention to the fall migration of these birds.

Nighthawks begin their southern trek in mid-August and continue their flight into early-mid September. They have to go all the way to South America and cannot afford to tally until the temperatures drop and the leaves change color. Now is the time to look skyward to see large groups of of these slender winged birds overhead. Late afternoon and early evening is the best time to do this. Over the last few days I’ve seen about 35 birds, massed into separate groups of  10-20 birds, glide past the open window of sky framed by the walnuts in my backyard.

During this migration and during their standard year, nighthawks fly in the evening and roost during the day. Typically they rest out in the open on gravelly ground or leafless branches where their cryptic coloration keeps them well concealed.  I was fortunate to see one roosting the other day (see above).  Actually I was told specifically where this bird would be found and found it exactly where it was supposed to be. 

As you can see, the bird was “at one” with the branch upon which it was perched. It is difficult to see, due to my poor photo skills and its excellent camouflage abilities, but the bird is facing left with its large eyes partially closed. The white-speckled gray wing coverts are dropped down to blend in with the dead branch (see detail below).

This bird had instinctively chosen  to assume its position in the manner of all “crepuscular caprimulgids”. It perched parallel to the branch rather than perpendicular to it.  Studies have been conducted on this roosting behavior and several other common features have emerged – it’s almost as if this bird read the literature about it (no doubt using a nightlight)! They tend to roost in dead trees which are taller than the surrounding trees and they face in a direction away from the trunk.  If the chance offers itself, the birds will also face east.

This one adhered to all the nighthawk doctrines, but was facing in more of a westerly/southerly direction. This sucker was probably anticipating the direction of its evening flight towards Brazil and dreaming of nice long daytime siestas in the southern hemisphere.

September 3, 2009

A Quill Pig Interrupted – Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:40 pm

In the first installment I deliberately avoided the prickly subject of porcupine quills so that we could give them the attention they are due. North American porcupines, in spite of their many charms and features, are only as good as their quill defense system. After-all, a Quill Pig without its thorny coating is little more than a giant tree-hugging guinea pig. Guinea pigs are edible and so are porkies. Guinea Pigs are relatively defenseless but have found a partial solution to this problem by seeking asylum as household pets (although they are still on the menu in South America). Porkies, acknowledging that they will never be welcome as human pets, have resorted to a wicked defense system in order to protect their tasty parts from all comers.  They don’t run, hide, or skirt danger, they simply challenge their attackers with a phalynx of 30,000 spears.

Porcupine quills are modified hairs that are mixed in with the regular hairs on the upper body (see here).  They differ in length from 3/4 inch shafts around the face to around 3 inches on the back, but are consistent in structure. Each quill is loosely rooted into the skin with a narrow base (see here) which inflates to an even white shaft that terminates in a narrow brown point. Except for the pointy tip, they look for all the world like those clown balloons used to make balloon animals. Contrary to a popular misconception, however, they are not actually hollow but are instead filled with a spongy matrix similar to packing peanut foam. These packing peanut filled clown balloons are definitely not safe to play with. The brown portion of each point is covered with backward facing scales that act as barbs when driven into an opponent (see below).

Part of the mystique of porcupine quill lore is that they can throw their quills. Simply put, they can’t. When threatened, the porky lowers his head and presents its spiny upper-side for consideration (“Say hello to my little friends!”) and the tail is poised upright for action. One reference mentions that this pose is very skunk-like. Interestingly enough, the tail and back do present a stark black & white design similar to the skunk pattern (see here). Scientists believe this so-called rosette pattern serves as a nighttime visual warning (“Don’t even try to say hello to my little friends”). When prompted to act, the quill pig squishes this stout tail from side to side on the outside chance it will drive a few quills home. Most of the tail quills are located along the sides, with shorter ones hidden under the fur on the topside. There are no quills on the bottom side of the tail at all (see here). Any direct attack by the aggressor to the back of the head, back, or upper sides will offer a direct mouthful of quills (see beginning picture). Fishers, large members of the weasel family, are one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine because they have learned to attack the unprotected face and soft underbelly.

Any quill coming into contact will anchor into the aggressor’s flesh and quickly release from the porcupine’s skin. The thick base of the quill prevents it from being driven back into the porky’s body (“Don’t let your little friends back stab you”). Once into “enemy” flesh the quill will travel inward – working its way through soft tissue until eventually reaching bone. Needless to say, this is a painful and potentially deadly deterrent. Oddly enough, porky pins rarely cause an infection because they are coated with an anti-biotic layer. Again, this latter feature is probably a self-protective feature to prevent nasty inflammations due to self quilling.

Quills are not exclusively defensive, although that is their forte. Because they are filled with air-pockets, they offer a great insulating layer during the winter. Functioning like thousands of micro-life preservers ( or clown balloons?) quills also provide buoyant support for swimming porcupines – something these animals do quite often. As a final testament to the remarkable nature of porcupine quills, they have long been used by Native Americans to ornament moccasins,  garments, and beautiful baskets (say hello to the little basket below). Dyed and woven into cloth, leather, or birch bark they are transformed into incredible works of art. Many of these quills were harvested from dead animals, like the example I found, but most came from animals killed deliberately for their quills! There is no small irony in that.

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