Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 30, 2009

Highbush Yuckberry

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:08 am

If I told you that Highbush Cranberry berries are “very mildly toxic “and may “cause vomiting or diarrhea if eaten in large amounts,” would you eat one?  Well, yes, of course you would. All the good things in life have the potential of inducing vomiting or diarrhea when eaten in large amounts.  I cite Twinkies and Corn Nuts as prime examples of this phenomenon. Almonds contain cyanide. If you ate an entire grain elevator full of almonds over a short period of time, you would die – not from cyanide poisoning, however, but from gluttony and embarrassment.  Moderation is the key here.

I bring this topic up, figuratively, in order to discuss the relative merits of Highbush Cranberry berries. These beautiful bright red fruit clusters become painfully obvious this time of year. They dangle from their bushy heights like luscious plump ambrosia clusters ripe for the picking. Each fresh snowfall places a cute little elfin cap on each ruby cluster. You are rightly tempted to try one of these berries and you are safe to do so. But, I warn you to consider a few things (other than diarrhea) before taking this step.

First of all, there are two kinds of Highbush Cranberry species out there.  They are nearly identical but one is “good” and the other is “bad.”  Secondly, Highbush Cranberries are not cranberries at all, they are members of the viburnum family that have absolutely no relationship to those low grown soggy red bog berries of Turkeytime fame. Finally, ask yourself the following question: “Why, if these things are supposed to be so good, are they still hanging on the bush? – they should have been eaten up months ago by hungry birds.”

Up until today, I was as ignorant of the first consideration as a deep fried twinkie is of common sense.  Though I had long known that these berries were once used as a cranberry substitute, I could not rectify this with my knowledge that the Highbush berries in my neighborhood smelled like a combination of wet dog smell and that funky cornflake-like locker room odor.  Needless to say, their taste matched their advertising.  I simply concluded that our early New England ancestors were desperate folk driven into madness by a constant diet of turkey. Well, I was wrong.

There are actually two species of so-called Highbush Cranberry. The American Highbush, or Cranberry Bush (Viburnum trilobum) and the European Highbush (Viburnum opulus). The native shrub produces good tasting berries suitable for making jams and wines etc. while the European one bears acidic and nasty tasting berries. This explains why the Pilgrims moved away from Europe. Unfortunately, the foreign species has spread throughout the northeast and is found overlapping the entire range of the native shrub. Apparently, I had never experienced a true American Highbush Cranberry – the one used as a cranberry substitute, that is.

The two species are virtually identical in appearance except that trilobum has leaves with shallower lobes than opulus.  Both are opposite-leaved multi-stemmed shrubs getting up to 15 feet high. Some scientists have suggested that the two are only varieties of each other. In the winter, when the leaves are gone, the only way to determine the difference is to try some of the fruit. If you vomit, then you have just tasted the European type. Simple.  Encouraged by this new fact, I went out and tried one of the local fruits. You can see the results below. It was an opulus.

You’ll notice as you spit the contents from your mouth, as I did, that the berries contain large flat seeds that take up the entire fruit.  The seeds are the truly bitter part (although I have noticed that some creatures eat the seeds and leave the fruit- see here). Should you come upon a genuine American Highbush in the future, be sure to remove the seeds before processing the fruit.  According to the literature, the fruits should be harvested soon after ripening when they are firm and red. Some references say that they should be picked when slightly under-ripe but after the first frost. In the case of the European Cranberry Bush, you are instructed to pick the fruit at any time, throw them out, and then go to the store and buy some real cranberry sauce.

As to the final point regarding palatability for wildlife, you can do a brief survey in your neighborhood and note that most of the Highbush berries will remain throughout the winter. In fact, if your bushes are heavily laden with winter fruit they are likely to be the “bad” kind. In opulus country, birds will eat them only as a last resort. Apparently the action of freezing and thawing concentrates the sugar content enough so that they become more palatable by season’s end.

Even with my new found wisdom in this regard, I prefer to leave the Highbush Cranberry to the birds and the Pilgrims. I’d rather get sick on Twinkies.

December 26, 2009

Thief in the Night

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:06 pm

This is a small story with no end – at least not a satisfying one. It involves Luc, the captive bald eagle housed at the Lake Erie Marshlands Museum, his food, and a mystery guest. Luc is a good eater. Since this eagle is limited by his physical problems it is our job to make sure that he has enough food to meet his energy needs. This is especially important during the winter months.  Eagles are resilient winter birds. In the wild they perch in exposed locations, stand out on the open ice, and otherwise tough it out without the benefit of any shelter. Their thick coating of down acts as an insulating layer which retains body heat and buffers the effects of even the coldest of winds.

Wild eagles also have the ability to prime their engines by moving about over great distances. Luc gets in his calisthenics by engaging in short flights to and from his large perch – either to the ground and back or to his smaller perch and back.  He also shivers as a natural way to generate heat. All this requires energy. His diet, therefore, needs to be a hearty one -and it is. Depending on the day, he’ll get a heaping helping (about a pound) of fish, rabbits, or rats. Thanks to the generous donations of local hunters, he’s also had the recent opportunity to feast on venison and duck.

Not that we need to get into precise details here, but let’s just say that Luc leaves a lot of scraps after a meal. A rabbit is pretty well reduced down to a head, a gut pile, and a few unlucky feet. Everything but the head & backbone are consumed during a fish meal (the remains looking very much like those cartoon fish skeletons) while a rack ‘o venison ribs are picked clean to the bone. Rats are about the only eagle meal which produces no significant remains.

Sometime within the last month, however, we noticed that Luc appeared to be licking his plate (or his stump, as the case may be). There were very few pieces of any consequence left for us to pick up. I assumed he was eating more due to the colder weather and began to worry that maybe we weren’t keeping up with his appetite. The deer ribs remained in their picked state but they always ended up in an odd corner of the cage – tucked into the micro corner formed by the pond’s rock pile and the cage wall. Strangely, some of the few rabbit parts also found their way there. This complete consumption was very odd but the stashing thing was extra bizarre. Eagles don’t store food like squirrels – they eat them.

An old thought began to creep back into my head about this time. Early on, for several weeks after we received the bird as a matter of fact, none of us ever saw our eagle eat. He would not eat in front of people. Sure, the food would disappear by the next day, but there was always the nagging idea that some small mammalian creature was sneaking into the cage under the cover of darkness and making off with Luc’s food. Perhaps Luc was starving to death right in front of us as we kept piling mounds of food that he ultimately could never get a chance to eat!

After finally witnessing the eagle tear away at a freshly placed rabbit (a dead one, in case you are wondering) and noting the consistent meal remains, I finally felt comfortable that our eagle will grow fat and old under our care. Besides, the spacing between the enclosure slats was pretty small so it would have to be a pretty small invader. Then the weather turned cold and the previously reported events began to occur.

It took a few inches of snow cover to finally solve the first part of “the Case of the Moving Ribs.” In short, my earlier fears were real – a small mammalian invader was entering Luc’s cage at night and eating his food. That uninvited guest was an Opossum. His distinctive tracks pockmarked the snow around Luc’s feeding station (see track details above and below) and centered around a set of deer ribs pulled up to the tight inside corner by the pond rocks.

Opossum tracks are very diagnostic (see another view here). The front foot mark clearly shows a wide-spreading pattern of five toes. The impression of the hind foot is placed next to the front track and bears evidence of a thumb-like toe stuck out at a right angle from the foot pad. There was no doubt as to the identity of the maker of these marks.

The sneaky marsupial was entering the cage via the northwest corner where there is a slightly wider gap between the slats. A straight line of tracks led directly from the nearby marsh. Once inside, the beast was dragging the food scraps over to his dining corner (see here) and gnawing away in comfort before leaving by the same narrow door. Since opossums are nocturnal, they have nothing to fear from the likes of a diurnal bald eagle. Our invader was entering into the sleeping Cyclops’s lair and eating his sheep (Luc is blind in one eye).

It would be nice to report that we eventually nabbed the offending ‘possum and threw his lifeless carcass onto Luc’s feeding stump, but such is not the case – yet. This is the part where I must leave you with no true ending. The marsupial will have to go and the entry point will be sealed, but this deed will have to wait until I can secure a live trap and get the thing in hand.  I’m not in a terrible hurry.

Not all of my fears are realized in this scenario, for you see I believe the mammal is only picking at the remains and not eating all the bird’s food. Luc is getting his share and the lowly hair-beast is merely picking at crumbs. Perhaps over the Christmas holiday the opossum will overdo his gig and get fat. In that case he will render himself either too girthy to squeeze through the entrance point or, God forbid, too big to escape back to the marsh. In the latter case, the sunrise will prove fatal to our night thief as the enclosure guard awakes.

December 23, 2009

The Wanderer Strikes

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:17 pm

The primary name of the Peregrine Falcon stems from the old-fashioned word meaning  “wanderer.” They are a global species, distributed over every type of habitat and on every continent except Antarctica, so this name is certainly an appropriate one.  Back in “the day,” however, they were better known as Duck Hawks. It used to be that most predatory birds were  named after their prey -even if the name was inaccurate or misleading. Cooper’s Hawks were notoriously called Chicken Hawks, Osprey were known as Fish Hawks, and Kestrals were dubbed Sparrow Hawks. Ospreys are indeed fish specialists, but Coops only take chickens when convenient and Kestrals aren’t happy unless they nab a regular diet of meadow voles. Although Peregrines take a wide variety of bird prey, they really do earn their Duck Hawk appellation.

Peregrines are not hawks in the specific sense of the word. They are falcons complete with long tails, tapered wings, and “sideburns” but let’s not get too picky here. “Hawk” is often used as a generic term to cover a whole host of daytime birds of prey. The sight of a Peregrine falcon atop a freshly killed duck is as natural as a winter sunrise itself. Since the Detroit River mouth environs offers a bounteous wealth of waterfowl this area acts as a magnet for these large falcons (duck a la Detroit). I frequently encounter evidence of their predatory work after the fact, but was lucky enough to come upon the scene of a fresh duck  kill along the river shore. As a matter of fact, this kill site was so fresh that the killer was still present at the scene (see below).

I was not witness to the killing act, but can piece together the probable scenario that led up to the scene before me. Peregrine Falcons are specialists at picking their prey out of the sky, so it is likely that this kill was made after the duck flushed from the water. Ducks that stay tight on the water surface or dive underneath it can avoid capture. Once in the air, however, the falcon is allowed to swoop down from above and strike the prey with a blow delivered by the feet -literally knocking the wind, if not the immediate life, out of his quarry. No one is really sure how fast a stooping falcon can go, but educated estimates exceeding 150 mph have been ventured. These birds become, in other words, living missiles.

As in war, however,  missiles do not always hit their target. Studies on the predatory habits of falcons have shown that they miss far more often than they hit their intended targets. In Alberta, Peregrines only nabbed 25 ducks after 275 attempts and in British Columbia they were batting nine out of 43 (I guess that would be a .200 average). It’s not just a Canadian thing either, it’s everywhere. If ducks knew the odds they’d be a happier lot of fowl.

The business of eating which follows the capture is conducted with little waste of time. Larger birds, such as eagles, often rob Peregrines of their kill, so they must get their job done efficiently. Plucking is the first order of business. All the contour and down feathers are pulled out – leaving the prey’s wings, head, and feet intact – before feasting begins. They can eat large amounts, up to 1/4 of their weight,  at one sitting. When I first came upon my falcon he had already performed the pluck and was well into the stuff portion of the routine. A large pile of down had accumulated on the downwind grass and his crop was bulging like a softball (you can see the round area in his throat in this view). Frankly he looked rather guilty about the whole thing and he moved a few feet away from the meal as I neared (see here). After a few minutes he returned to work (see here – sorry for the erratic camera work, there was an earthquake at the time).

This individual was an immature bird with quite a bit of brown streaking on the breast. The large sideburn marks along with the clear yellow eye rings were clear indications of the species, but I could not make a definite call as to the sex of the bird. Females (called “falcons” by falconers) are larger than the males (called “tiercels” by those same folks). If I had to guess, I’d say this was a female but I guess I don’t really have to guess do I?

Returning to the kill site later in the day, I was able to find out exactly what kind of duck served as the main course for this falcon. It was a Ruddy Duck – one of the hundreds of waterfowl currently wintering on the river. The victim was laid out in typical Peregrine fashion with the head, wings, and feet in untouched condition (see here). A portion of the entrails were neatly pulled out and laid upon the down patch. The nice condition of the duck’s head afforded an opportunity for a detailed look at that wonderful Ruddy beak (see below and here). Everything else on the bird was well picked over but a lot of meat remained in place.

When I returned to the kill the next day, the duck had been worked over yet again and most of the meat was gone. By the time I left the kill this time, the carcass was missing both its head and feet. I acted as the scavenger and removed those portions for further forensic study. You could say that the Peregrine and I were partners in crime.

December 20, 2009

Please Open Before Christmas

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:23 pm

I rarely pass up the opportunity to dissect an owl pellet. Such peristaltically propelled predatory packets are keys to unlocking the secret nightlife of our neighborhood owls. I remind you that pellets aren’t poop. They consist of the undigested remains of prey animals – mostly hair, bones, and feathers – which are compacted in the crop and ejected out of the bird’s mouth. Pellets are propelled, in other words, from the north end of an owl looking north whereas everything else is propelled from the south end. So, picking apart a pellet is not as nasty as you might think.  If viewed with proper attitude, pellets can be considered as little presents packed full ‘o fun and mystery. You never know what’s going to be inside. What a great Christmas idea for that special someone.

My last opportunity to do some pellet picking occurred just before our recent snowfall. A Great Horned Owl tossed his offering down onto the sidewalk behind the nature center building. Apparently the bird was perched on the roof edge and felt compelled to let ‘er rip right then and there. The pellet broke upon impacting the hard surface below, but it would have been about three inches long (see here). This size range put it firmly in the Great Horned Owl category.

I’ve often wondered what it feels like to eject a pellet. Based on the birds I’ve seen, they don’t appear to like it. They shake their head about, and with half-closed eyes, open up and fire. After the deed is done there are usually a few lip smacks followed by a slight re-focusing of the eyes. Perhaps the only comparable human experiences are those nasty soda pop burps and up-chucking, but I doubt they are truly the same.

While pondering the above question I carefully pulled the “little mystery packet” apart. I went for the big obvious bone first – like shaking the money out of a birthday card before reading who it was from. In this case the big piece turned out to be a complete lower leg bone (called a tarsalmetatarsus) from a bird. The rest of the pellet consisted of bird remains as well – over 124 bone fragments from two different types of birds (see below). All of this, including an intact feather, was packed in the talcum like powdery matrix of digested feathers.

Great horns are primarily mammal killers. They will go after anything from tiny shrews to fuzzy lap cats. But, if there is one thing that can be said about this bird’s diet, it is eclectic. Records show that virtually any kind of smaller animal can find itself on the dinner list. This list may include a variety of fish, bats, amphibians, and a whole host of birds. There is even a circumstance where one of these owls descended into a chimney in order to pick off a few of the Chimney Swifts nesting there.

After a bit of detective work involving a text on bird osteology and comparative samples, I determined that the pellet bones represented a foot form a diving duck and the better (or worse part) of a small perching bird. The small bird, complete with a tiny wish bone, was probably a Starling and the identity of the duck centered on a Ruddy Duck.

Each evening for the past month the marsh adjacent to the nature center has been the gathering and roosting spot for thousands of blackbirds. Most of these sooty fellows are Starlings. The birds circle about like shifting schools of fish for about 20 minutes before settling for the night on the branches of the cottonwood trees. I now had proof positive that at least one Great Horned Owl was conducting nocturnal raiding parties on this bountiful bird offering.  In order to confirm the duck identification, I was lucky enough to come upon the fresh remains of a Ruddy Duck out by the lakeshore (you’ll hear more about this one in the next Naturespeak).  I boiled down the foot (see here) from that bird and rendered the bones for comparison.

The bone match, especially on the tarsometatarsus, was exact (see comparison above – the pellet bones are on the bottom). In fact, I was even able to figure that the pellet remains were form the right foot of some unfortunate Ruddy duck (see here). The only thing missing was the outermost toe. What I don’t know is how the owl obtained his duck meal. There is a chance that the owl scavenged the fowl just like I had. Since they’ve been recorded as taking live ducks, however, there is no reason to suppose our Ruddy wasn’t taken via a stealth attack on the ice. in short, it was a duck that didn’t duck in time!

I can’t wait for the next pellet. I’m looking forward to finding one that contains a little buckle in it from a cat collar.

December 17, 2009

Does Basswood Taste Like Fish?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:08 pm

The process usually goes like this. I find something that I think is interesting. I photograph it, measure it or do whatever it takes to record the thing, and then do some heavy research before committing the subject to cyberspace. More often than not I encounter my subjects by “accident” (although “by random discovery” might be a better wording choice). The other day I “randomly discovered” a Basswood tree adorned with seed clusters and, since I’ve always had a soft spot for Basswood, decided then and there to make them the subject of a future Naturespeak.  Welcome to the future.

Basswood seeds may not seem the stuff of close examination, but on a gray December day when nothing else is happening they provide plenty of grist for the mind mill. The fruiting structure of this plant is unique among northern trees. Unlike the winged seeds of maple and ash, where a winged appendage is attached directly to the individual seeds, the basswood uses a single wing to airlift an entire  cluster of seeds. Each fruiting cluster (called a cyme, in case you are looking for a scrabble word) is suspended from the branch by a single stem. A leafy wing (called a bract, in case “cyme” wasn’t good enough for you) is half-attached to this stem – the other half angling out to form a free wing.

Ideally, when the whole structure breaks free from the home branch the wing will give spin to the dropping cluster and carry it away from the mother tree. The first part of this journey, the vertical part, is a cumbersome affair.  The awkward rotation of the bract wing only manages to carry the seeds a few feet away – perhaps a tree length away if conditions are right. The second part of the journey, the horizontal part, is where the wing really does its thing. As the winter winds kick in, the bract wing functions as a sail to carry its load along the ground. Over a hard packed snow surface a basswood seed cluster can go for miles.

Some of you may recall that I already talked about this horizontal wind-surfing technique in a previous column, so I’ll leave that one alone and move on to the subject of seeds.

Basswood seeds are little brown nuts encased in a hard fuzzy nutlet. There are typically 6-20 per cluster. Individual trees will vary as to the shape of their nutlets and the specially endowed ones will have more than one nut per nutlet. I checked out the tree shown in the photos and was slightly disappointed to find that it was one of those standard “round nutlet with one nut apiece” trees. Exciting topic, eh?

Well, as the old adage goes, there’s more to a tree than round nutlets (what?). There are buds to consider. You’ll notice upon close examination that basswood buds are bright red (see here). Before continuing, see if you can say “basswood buds” three times fast. O.K., let’s continue. These brilliant basswood buds not only supply a good winter identification feature but they contribute to another potential tongue twister.  Brilliant Basswood buds become better by biting. They taste like peas, by the way. So, you can do a little basswood bud browsing before bypassing them.

One of the websites I researches went beyond this bud tasting advice and actually mentioned that the wood of this tree was “bland tasting.” While some of us may take occasion to down a few buds, not many of us are into eating wood – at least on purpose. I suspect that this entry was written by a beaver. The wood of the basswood is far better known for its wonderful carving qualities than for its taste although I suppose if you cooked it right and smothered it with enough gravy you’d end up with something edible for the holidays.

On a final note, there’s the matter of the Basswoods name. American natives totally disregarded the edible nature of the wood and instead made use of the bark. They would beat the snot out of the bark in order to expose the network of fibers within. These fibers were twisted into strong serviceable twine for making nets, baskets, and bags. The old fashioned English term for twine was “bast.” When this tree was given its Anglesized name the original term bastwood, or twine wood, was used. This term was eventually corrupted into basswood by other English speaking people who had a hard time talking while chewing wood.

Now you know why basswood has nothing whatsoever to do with fish. You would eat bass and would not eat wood.

December 13, 2009

On Thin Ice

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:16 pm

The arrival of the icing season has put a whole new spin on life in the aquatic world. Creatures who were once at home in the transition zone where water meets air now have to choose between one or the other. Others have to accept the presence of an overhead  roof and the threat of oxygen depletion. All have to adapt, but then again that’s the way it has always been.

For the muskrat, the first layer of mid-December ice offered a new opportunity. For one Kent Lake (Kensington Metropark) ‘rat, the solid crust provided a base of operations for exploiting and harvesting a lush bed of aquatic plants (see above). Instead of venturing to and from an offshore plant bed, as he had all summer, this critter could now place himself directly over it. The submerged prize – probably some sort of tuber – was now obtainable via a short 30 second dive (see here) into an open lead of water. Eating could begin immediately after the muskrat crawled back out onto the ice. Such ice feeding sites are easy to spot, when the ‘rat is not there, due to the  fresh vegetation piled onto the ice.

I watched this fellow for the better part of ten minutes as he dove, rose, ate, and dove again. He stopped for a little grooming every now and then, but kept on task for the most part. Even though it was a bitter cold day with wind driven flurries, he looked quite happy with his lot – like a child who’d just discovered a bridge leading to a candy shop. As the ice thickens over the season he’ll have to maintain these open spots if he wants to continue. For now, however, life is good for a ‘rat on thin ice.

For another muskrat, the thicker ice layer on one of the Lake Erie Metropark lagoons forced him to remain submerged. He took advantage of the cold pack to do a little fishing. Fish become sluggish when trapped under the ice. Like otters, muskrats – at least our hardy Lake Erie ‘rats – frequently chase down and eat a few of these finny treats. The muskrat’s swimming abilities are normally more than a match for the fish but slower fish make for easier prey. Fortunately the ice was still thin enough to see through as one frisky ‘rat performed his piscatorial duties underneath the glassy ceiling (see below – a photo taken last year of the same situation).

After the muskrat left the scene, a very slow but very alive Painted Turtle could be seen crawling along the bottom. Among the most cold tolerant of reptiles, the sight of one of these reptiles under the ice is not all that unusual. It was a first for me, I have to admit. For this turtle, life under the ice will eventually require him to slow down. It’s not the cold or the lack of food that will grind him down- there’ll be plenty of dead fish to eat – but the lack of oxygen. Remarkably, Painted Turtles don’t need to surface as long as there is oxygen in the water. They can absorb the O2 through the skin lining their mouth and cloaca (yes, that’s the rear end) and, as long as they don’t do a whole lot, can survive on this.

Under solid ice conditions, however, the available oxygen supply eventually peters out. Turtles will then have to resort to anaerobic respiration- a process requiring that the creature literally begin digesting itself. Given the proper conditions a Painter can survive submerged in oxygen-depleted waters for over 5 months if necessary. A potentially fatal side effect of this process is the build up of lactic acid in the bloodstream. To get around this the turtle releases carbonate (calcium salts) into the blood stream in order to neutralize the acid. Most creatures don’t have enough extra bone in them to afford this costly procedure, but turtles can make use of their very substantial and very bony shells. By next spring, this wandering turtle will basically look the same but will weigh less. That’s a shell of a way to get by.

Many large bullfrog tadpoles share the Erie Marsh world of the Muskrat and Painted Turtle. As gill breathers they will depend upon the oxygen in the water to get them through the winter. Without any real bones with which to perform the “turtle trick” they resort to air gulping when O2 supplies are low. I watched a steady procession of tadpoles make their way to the “surface,” only to be halted by the thick  double layer of bubbly new ice. They groped about for a while until bumping into one of the many entrapped air bubbles. Then, probably after sucking in a bit of the gassy sweet stuff of life, they descended out of view. Theirs will be a long winter, but then again, they’re used to it.

Perhaps the most satisfying of thin ice scenarios involved several Canada Geese. These obnoxious birds are prime examples of the type of creatures which are forced to make a choice when they can no longer enjoy the benefit of swimming in the liquid water.

As witness to that moment in time when the ice was still forming on Washago Pond, I saw many geese pressed into making a choice. Many of them chose to stand on the land and avoid the water but when pressed these birds retreated to the water. They attempted to swim but found the water harder than usual and, after blundering about for a moment or two, soon broke through. Once in, they swam about within their mini-ponds (see below and here) until something in their pea-brained psyche told them move on. Their clumsy efforts and their ponderous weight prevented them from making any headway (see movie here).

The only way to final freedom was to resort to flying up and out until solid, albeit slippery, aqua-firma was reached. You’d think that they’d get the message. Mother Nature is telling them something.  Actually, they have several choices: they can die, leave, stand on the ice, or live under it (Admittedly the last choice will result in the first one). Real Canada Geese are supposed to migrate south to places where ice is not a factor. It’s their own fault if they stay here. The muskrat, tadpole, and turtle? Well, they have no choice.

December 9, 2009

The Season’s First Snow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:36 pm

It’s the second week of December and here in S.E. Michigan we are still looking for the season’s first real snow. Some look forward to it while others look sadly for it, but look we do.  There have been a few flakes flying about, but no real accumulation has occurred as of yesterday morning . Well, I am happy to report that the first “real snow” has finally arrived. It came in on the cusp of a cold Canadian wind in the form of a real Snow Goose.

Truthfully, this northern visitor actually showed up last week, but I didn’t see it until yesterday. A friend advised me that there was a lone Snow Goose hanging out with a huge flock of Canada Geese at the Washago Pond complex in Willow Metropark. I went out to find it and was rewarded after a short search.  I believe that half of the world’s population of Canada Geese have taken up residence on the lawn and in the slushy water of the complex. There were thousands of the feathered nuisances walking, honking, flying, and pooping their way across the landscape.  Spotting the solitary figure of a white bird among that sea of gray was more like spotting a grain of sand in a pile of pepper, rather than a beacon in a coal pile. O.K., it wasn’t that hard, but it took a while. I almost broke a sweat.

There is a good chance that this will not only be the seasons first snow but perhaps its only snow. Snow Geese are rare migrant visitors to these parts. A majority of these Arctic nesting birds descend down through the central plains to overwinter along the Gulf Coast and Mexico.  Their southbound routes typically take them well west of Michigan, with some populations veering to the east, but all in all they tend to avoid our middle Great Lakes country altogether. This is simply a fact and not a reflection on the efforts of our state tourist board, by the way. A few always manage to find their way here, however.

In nearly all cases when these birds show up in our region they are in the company of Canada Geese. Equally nearly (not good English, but so what) they tend to look a bit uncomfortable – like Dorothy realizing she is not in Kansas anymore. Perhaps part of this befuddled look is that “Fistful of Dollars” sneer that the species exhibits. One of the best ways to tell this bird apart from the similar Ross’s Goose is to look for the presence of an oval shaped area on the side of the beak where the heavy tooth-like laminations show.  Bird guides call this a “grinning patch” or a “smile,”  but I call it an “Eastwood do you feel lucky Sneer.” Snow Geese are grazers and they use these “teeth,” in combination with a stout tongue, to pull and cut tough grasses and herbs.

Another sure way to identify these birds is to look for a white goose with black wing tips (see below). There are other color variations, including the so-called Blue Goose form,  but the normally-colored ones are distinctively black & white.  O.K.,  I probably shouldn’t have said “normal” as if to imply that the blue ones are “freakish,” so I hope the S.A.B.G (“Society for the Advancement of Blue Geese”) doesn’t call me on this one.

Even though mine was a rarish sighting, Snow Geese are actually one of the most common birds on the planet. It is estimated that there are over 5 million birds on the Canadian breeding grounds alone and that the population is growing at an accelerated rate. Some near- sighted folks have actually pointed toward global warming as the cause of this boom. I’m not sure how that works, but no matter.

Perhaps agitated by globally warmed nerves, my Snow Goose proved to be an elusive beast. No sooner had I spotted it – and it me, than it launched skyward in the company of a few skiddish Canadians (one of which had a leg band – you can see it on the left leg of the center individual in the this  picture). They all took off over the tree line and headed toward Kansas.

December 6, 2009

Does Darlene Still Luv Vaughn?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:26 pm

Beech bark is more like skin than bark. At least one writer has described the trunk of this tree as looking like an elephant leg – providing a very descriptive mind picture for anyone wishing to describe the beech’s smoothish gray look. Elephants have wrinkled knee patches and other “saggy-baggy” parts, of course, but when it comes to color and general texture this is a very apt description. During the naked season this is the feature that helps the American Beech stand out when in company of rough-barked maples and oaks.

Just to be complete, I’ll mention that leaves are another winter feature of cold season beech trees. They, like many oaks (to which they are related), often retain their bleached dead leaves well into the season (see below). When these brittle remnants chatter in the cold wind, they are giving voice to the species. While some beeches may be verbally putting a finger up to their dry lips to say “Shh,” others are certainly hissing disapproval. They are reminding us that their bark is not a slateboard for graffitti expression. Unfortunately there are few mature beech trees living in our public places that haven’t been given this kind of  “initial treatment” (for another example see here).

Bark carving is not necessarily fatal to a tree but it can provide an entry point for fungus and disease organisms. There are dozens of decay agents just waiting for a way to gain access to the living portion of the beech tree. In addition to this threat there is a Beech Bark Disease going around. These risks alone should be reason enough not to do it. It’s not worth killing a potentially majestic tree, capable of living well over 200 years, just for the sake of a teenage infatuation!  For the most part, however, bark carving is more of a visual problem than a physical danger to the tree. The fact that most of these so-called signature trees are large-trunked individuals with well healed alphabet scars is testament to their resilience.

Beech bark is carvable because it exists as a thin parchment-like layer. Most tree bark consists of dead material that cracks and splits as the underlying living layer expands. Beech bark forms a thin living layer which stretches evenly as the tree increases it’s woody girth. The actual dead portion of the bark flakes off like so much dry skin. When letters are cut into the bark the tree is forced to create a layer of protective scar tissue called “wound cork.” Corky scars were originally intended by the Beech Gods to  form around natural graffiti damage such as bear claw marks and wind damage. Fortunately,  they serve well against un-natural marks as well.

The only good thing about beech tree graffiti is that it tends to be of a romantic nature. For the most part it consists of such heart felt sentiments as “Darlene Luvs Vaughn” or  hearts with “J.M. + S.C.” inside. Some carvings are simple minded efforts of folks like “Chuck.” A date often accompanies these initials. For instance, the aforesaid “Chuck” carved his name into a tree at Secor Metropark (Toledo, Ohio) on September 16, 1979 (see below). In the intervening 30 years since inscribing his great work of literature, Chuck’s letters have smoothed and widened.

The oldest beech bark carving I could actually read dated to the early 1960’s. I’ve seen oddly shaped scars that were once probably initials but were reduced to meaningless corky blobs -they might have said something like “D. Boone kilt a bar” or something like that but there was no way of knowing.   If left unmolested, beeches eventually render written words into abstract designs. This is a good thing. I’d bet that most of these carvings probably represented passing fancies anyway. “J.M.” probably ended up  marrying “S.S” or “B.K” instead of “S.C.” How could he have known that “S.C.” was a tree-hugger who dumped him right after finding out that he took a knife to her favorite beech tree!

December 4, 2009

A Very Lucky Mouse

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:44 am

Ah ha! Caught in the act. There was no way this White-footed Mouse could deny his guilt. He was convicted fair and square by a jury of two. Guilty to the charge of hoarding corn in the museum store room. Guilty of peeing on our T-shirt supply and scaring museum visitors. Guilty  of making at least one staff member scream like a little girl (she was actually a girl, but not a little one). Guilty of  stealing my Freshwater Drum teeth. And guilty of the most egregious crime of eating our supply of “Chips Ahoy” cookies and licking the rest! This last count was cause enough to inflict the death penalty upon this pale-footed marauder. The sentence: death by a two jawed Victor snap trap.

Justice was quickly delivered in this case. It was an open and snap shut case. It only took about 6 hours for the offender to find the trap and attempt to taste it’s tempting offering of peanut butter (there were no more “Chips Ahoy” available as bait). Late in the afternoon, a muffled snap, followed by a high – nearly ultrasonic – squeak, told me that the sentence had been delivered by the cold plastic jaws of rodent death. I knew that the crime spree was over when a long period of silence followed that short burst of activity. “V” was for victory of  Hominid over Peromyscid (that’s “Man over Mouse”).

Rounding the corner to retrieve the lifeless body and revel in my conquest, I was surprised to find that the criminal was still alive.  Expecting to deliver some clever barb like “Sic Semper Tyrannus Chippea Ahoyi” I was instead forced to say, in plain Downriver English, “What the heck!” Yes, the jaws of death had descended in a non-lethal manner and, rather than snapping his cookie stealing little neck, they had only secured him in a half nelson grip (see below). This appeared to be a very lucky mouse.

The problem was in the trap itself, however. Luck had little to do with it. I have a trusty Mcgill Mouse Trap that I normally employ in such cases. This baby has steely serrated teeth and a super strong internal spring. The McGill never failed to administer Scottish “moertus instantanea” upon small uninvited mammals. Faced with capturing this museum mouse, I hastily grabbed one of my secondary traps from home – a cheap plastic Victor modeled on the same plan as the older McGill.

Earlier in the month I used this same Victor trap to catch a shrew that was terrorizing my wife (I thought him cute, but I had to do the deed in order to keep my marriage intact). I say “catch,”  rather than “kill” the shrew, because the mechanism only managed to grab the poor little beast by his nose. Have you ever heard a shrew scream?  I was actually relieved. Since shrews don’t really damage anything, they don’t deserve the death penalty.  The indignant creature was delivered out the front door as he dangled nose first from the trap. He was tossed out into the darkness and scurried away through the leaves.

So, I should have known that this trap was a wrestler and not a killer when I set it for the museum mouse. Looking at the creature I was intrigued at the unusual white spot on his back. White-footed mice normally have a solid reddish brown back. This one had a significant white patch, a birthmark, that would have easily made him stand out in a criminal line-up if the situation came to that. The feature was slightly endearing  and my decision to release him was “instantanea.” For some reason I took pity upon this freak as if the spot made him underprivileged. I imagined a childhood full of mockery from his fellow mice (White-footed Mice can be cruel) and a forced exile requiring him to survive on old corn, cookies, and freshwater drum teeth.

When dropped out onto the leaves, the mouse froze in position as if not believing his luck (see above). Apart from holding his neck in at an odd angle, the freed mouse before me was an un-harmed creature now free to re-enter the wilds. Saved by a weak trap and a weak-minded trapper, he  bounded off into the field. Yes, now he was free to be crushed in the non-plastic jaws of a fox or the hemorrhaging grip of a Red-tailed Hawk. At least his would be a noble death.

December 1, 2009

Talking Fat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:29 pm

The Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut has the largest Beluga Whale exhibit in North America (outside of the wild, that is). I visited with the facility’s three whales while in the company of a whole gang of fellow naturalists last week. Normally reporting on a zoo or aquarium visit is not my usual fare but this occasion offered something a bit different. We were allowed to go behind the fence and directly approach the waters edge where these wonderful white beasts live. One of the belugas, a milky white male named Inuk (“the old man”), spotted us and immediately approached to get a better view of the new set of humans entering his realm. He repeatedly rose his head out of the water and eyed us from only ten feet away and started to talk . Unfortunately none of us were fluent, or even remotely acquainted with his language, so we simply laughed back.

Apparently confirmed in his view that two leggers are incapable of speech, Inuk soon returned to his underwater ways and remained silent for the rest of our visit. Belugas are the only whale species equipped with a flexible neck (all other whales have fused vertebrae) and I’m confident he shook his head at our vocal ineptitude. Fortunately this human was equipped with a recorder and I was able to capture a snippet of his speech (listen here). Inuk’s utterings consisted of a set of two vocalizations followed by a breath of air from his blowhole. You’ll need to play it several times to get a full sense of this and you’ll need to excuse the giggling sapien noises along the way.

I considered this a rare opportunity to hear whaletalk first hand – without an underwater microphone or water column in the way. All whales vocalize and most use ultrasonic sounds to navigate. Their incredibly intricate sounds are meant for aqueous transmittal. Sound waves travel 1 mile/sec. in the water which is four times faster than air transmission. Water creatures, because they always have a full set of cell phone bars and unlimited minutes, tend to be a very chatty bunch. However, there is something magical about hearing some of these sounds dividing the dry air and striking the ear of a confirmed landlubber like I.

Belugas are creatures of the high Arctic seas that surround the north pole and kiss the northern shores of both North America and
Siberia. They get their name from the Russian word for “white one” but they are commonly known by sailors as “canaries of the sea” because of their talkative nature. Depending on who you reference, these bleached whales are capable of 11 different sounds ranging from whistles and clicks to a variety of trills,  mews, and bell-like tones.  Not a single one of those sounds is made with the aide of vocal chords or through the open mouth. Flipper (another species of toothed whale) wasn’t really talking in those old T.V. shows!

All toothed whales, beluga included, essentially talk through their blowholes. They control the air flow between a set of inner air sacs and then project these vibrations through an oily fat structure called the melon.  On the beluga, the melon is easily visible as the bulge on the forehead (see below). Incredibly enough, the whale actually alters the shape of this fatty melon in order to project the sound with pinpoint accuracy at a selected target- whether it be a food source or a bunch of ignorant two-leggers. You could actually see this oval mass vibrate and quiver as the speech was delivered.

Oddly enough, belugas do not have an open ear canal for listening to their own sounds. Their auditory canal is narrow and plugged with wax. The canal doesn’t even connect with the ear drum. Instead, incoming sounds are transmitted to the middle ear through a fat mass found in a cavity on the lower jaw. As you can see Belugas are fatheads in every sense of the word.

While we are on the subject of whale ears, one of the more fascinating aspects of our backroom aquarium tour was the chance to see “Steve.” Steve is a six foot nematode (roundworm) that was found in the ear cavity of a dead Fin Whale (see here and here). If you look at these pictures, by the way, Steve is the fellow in the container and not the one standing next to it. I realize this has nothing to do with belugas but I just wanted to share this for the sake of science.

At any rate, the only probable way that I could have communicated with Inuk’s inner ear would have been to stick my head underwater and grunt. Not only would that have been embarrassing to my fellow naturalists but would probably have resulted in some horribly disrespectful comment directed towards an intelligent being. Again, I remind you that I don’t know whalenese. Long ago the ancient Finlanders used to sing songs using a peculiar murmuring voice as a way to persuade belugas to come close to shore. Perhaps I can learn a few of these songs and be ready the next time I encounter a patient beluga.

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