Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 28, 2010

Gnat’s Not a Pine Cone

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:10 pm

So, you’re looking at a willow shrub and you see a bunch of pine cones stuck onto some of the branches. You say to yourself, “That’s a willow shrub, so those can’t be pine cones unless somebody got all decorative-like and deliberately put them there.” You turn around and realize that you are indeed talking to yourself and, out of self respect, you carry on the rest of the conversation internally. “Who would do that? This place is miles from anywhere. However, if Martha Stewart was in the neighborhood she would do such a thing.”  The conversation betwixt the left and right brain continues.  “Look at them, those aren’t cones,” you continue silently, “they’re all fuzzy.” “Well, maybe them is cones and they is rotten and all covered with fungus.” “No, Martha Stewart never uses old cones, she…”  “You need to shut up.” “No, you shut up.”

Such a grammatically incorrect conversation could happen. Therefore, I feel it is my public duty to reveal the truth behind those willow “pine cones” as a preventive measure. I’d hate to see you lying unconscious in the snow with self-inflicted fist marks on your face. This thing is so easily solved. Martha Stewart, you see, has never walked any of the loop trails at Crosswinds Marsh where these pictures were taken. End of story.

Now, for those of you who need more, I will continue with a more better..er, a much better explanation. Those cone-like structures found on scrub willows are called Pine Cone Willow Galls. They are growths caused by tiny gnats. The story began last spring when a long-legged gnat fly called Rhabdophaga strobiloides (“stem-eater within a pine cone home”) laid her egg on the terminal (end) bud of a new willow shoot. The insect egg, and the resulting larvae, triggered a response in the willow which stunted the outward growth of the stem. In effect, the stem dedicated all its efforts into creating a solid woody chamber around the larvae and enveloping the site with wool-covered scales.  The larva overwinters within the comfy confines of this gall and emerges in the following spring.

As far as we know, the willow is tricked into making these cones via chemical inducement – once pricked, they automatically produce this wonderful little construct for the little pricker. The willows are unable to engage in self-argument or refusal to perform.  The fly slips ‘em a mickey and wham! Bob’s your Uncle!  This scenario has been going on for eons and it is for the sole benefit of the gnat. Fortunately, although the willows are un-willowing partners in this affair, they only suffer a few embarrassing and harmless growths (harmless, that is, unless someone starts up a self argument about them.)

These galls are fascinating to look at. On the outside, they are covered with approximately 70 tough woody scales. The scales are densely covered with what botanists call “pubescence.” Internally (see below), the interior larval chamber is revealed to be a long narrow space surrounded by insulating layers of dead air space. This structure provides protection from the elements but does not shield its host from external air temperatures. Like many other fleshy little winter grubs, however, willow pine cone gnats are able to resist freezing down to -80 degrees below zero (F)!

You can clearly see a fat little yellowish thing within the central chamber of this cut-away gall (see below and here). It appears to be pupae of some sort. What I can’t tell you (“Yes you can”… “No I can’t”…) is whether that fleshy little thing is actually a pine cone gall gnat pupa.  There is a very good chance that it is not. This type of gall has been found to host an incredible number of alternate occupants – 24 species in all – including 9 harmless co-habitating species and 14 parasites. The parasites, of course, are the ones who take over the body of the gnat, kill it, and themselves overwinter in the gall.

Pine Cone Willow Galls are designed from the get-go so that the emerging gnat can simply push its way out through the overlapping upper scales like a one-way door. The adult gnat has no ability to chew its way out. Because of the vast numbers of potential predators, there is no telling what kind of creature will actually emerge from these “pine cones.” O.K., I can say with absolute surety that Martha Stewart will not – and that’s the end of it.

February 25, 2010

The Middle of Nowhere

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:25 pm

Being the first person to break a new snow cover at Pointe Mouillee on Tuesday, I was treated to a feeling of grand isolation. I was, at least for a while, the only human out there on that expansive marsh. I was not truly alone, of course. The river mouth to my north was covered with trumpeting Tundra Swans and honking Canada Geese. All were vocalizing as flock upon flock of their brethren drifted overhead and landed with a splash in the gray waters of the Huron (see here). They were flying in from feeding in the corn fields of northern Monroe County. A lone male Red-winged Blackbird, the first of the season, called from the twisted branches of an equally lonely willow.  His was a tentative call full of doubt – a spring call on day still fully dressed in winter garb.

Many other silent beings had trodden the path ahead of me. Whether they passed by the night before or perhaps earlier in the morning I couldn’t tell. Wandering coyotes, several long-distance mink, a few scattered cottontails, and host of opossums all left marks of their passage. At least one of those beings was still in the act of passing as I entered his domain, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The activities of the coyotes, as revealed in the track evidence, were especially intriguing. There were several individuals and they were engaged in mousing on the grassy dikes. A long singular line of foot marks would veer to the right or left where the sound of a meadow vole apparently caught the ear of the track-maker. Scuff marks and “nose” trenches (see below and here) showed where the predator stuck his muzzle down into the wet snow to pinpoint the location of tasty vole hidden in a grass tunnel just under the surface. At several locations a globular grass nest was uprooted and torn asunder.  It is likely that each endeavor started with the classic jump and dive approach where the coyote launched into the air and came down on the chosen spot with both front feet.

There was no evidence of actual capture, however. Coyotes tend to down their prey in a few gulps and leave little in the way of blood evidence.  For the sake of reality, it is safe to assume that the mice got away most, but not all, of the time. At one point a strategizing coyote sat down in the snow for a moment of contemplation. The creature not only left heel impressions (see here) but also shed a few stray hairs as evidence of his respite (see below & here).

As I neared the end of the Long Pond Unit, the coyotes abandoned the dike and veered off into the low grasses of the Bloody Run Unit. Several mink took up the trek at this point, although they were not in hunting mode. Their tracks ran continuously for a mile or more without deviation before jumping down the side of the dike to their destination.

It was a gray 35 degree day, warm by winter standards but still chilly as the nippy west winds chipped away at the edges. It was surprising, to say the least, to see a total of three Tiger Moth caterpillars attempting to add their tracks to the snow cover (see above). Too light to make any impression, they were slow and deliberate in their movements. They looked worse for wear (translation: looked like hell) with their spiky hair falling out in patches, but they managed to preserve some dignity and roll into a protective ball when picked up (see here). These anti-freeze pumped larvae were obviously overwintering in the grass tussocks but it is anybody’s guess why they were migrating over the snow on this particular day.  As if to show some arthropod brother ship, a lone spider was doing the same thing (see here). I believe this beast was probably ripped out of the comfy confines of a cat-tail or reed head by the wind. Finding himself exposed on the foreign surface, the sturdy traveler was trying to lay down a few snow angels before the neighborhood Horned Larks picked him up.

At the furthest point of my walk, the ground was peppered with opossum tracks. It was apparent that many of these tracks were laid down the previous night because there were multiple faint impressions made when there was still a crusty cover on the snow pack. At a point where the tracks looked especially fresh in the soft mid-afternoon snow, I looked up and found out just how fresh they were – the maker was still in them. Eying me suspiciously from the edge of the dike trail, a small dark opossum was figuratively frozen in his tracks (see below).

I instantly saw this as yet another opportunity to test the notion that these critters will drop “dead” if pressed. You may recall a similar experiment I conducted last month in which the possum remained fully in control of his dull senses. I walked toward this Mouillee ‘possum but he remained in place until I was only a few feet away. His flight, if you can call it that, took him along at a speed approximating the rate of a rising biscuit. I will say that this little marsupial deliberately stayed among the tough reed stalks so he really didn’t need to go too fast in order to elude me. I crashed along behind him, none-the-less, for another 50 feet or so in a clumsy attempt to keep up. Slow as he was, he kept just ahead of me. The chase scene reminded me of that televised slow motion O.J. chase.

Eventually he stopped to face me, and showed a slight bit of annoyance by opening his mouth but then reverted to stare-down mode (see below). We both rested for a moment. He patiently waited for the better part of two minutes as I changed the batteries in my camera, and we resumed the chase. I gave up after a quarter mile. The opossum showed no signs of fainting, slowing down, or speeding up. I, on the other hand, was close to exhibiting the first two symptoms.

So far, the score is 2 to zip in this game of man vs. opossum (if you count my earlier attempt to fritz out one of these beasts).  Out here in the middle of nowhere where coyotes are chasing mice and frozen caterpillars are chasing the season, such scores don’t really matter do they?

February 22, 2010

To a Hackmatack and Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:51 pm

“Trees are always neighborly kinds of things,” according to a character in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (The Adventure of the Yellow-faced Man). In this case, a young man was commenting about a thoughtful walk down a tree shaded lane. These particular words have nothing to do with the story and they provide no deep clue upon which the famous detective later pounces. That particular line stuck with me because it was especially poetic. Trees are indeed neighborly things and it is only neighborly to get to know them.

By way of this round-about introduction I wish to present the Tamarack, aka Hackmatack or American Larch, as yet another example of an interesting neighbor. Anyone with so many aliases might easily arouse suspicion as being a mobster or a paid informant. This guy also could also raise a few more red flags by claiming to be a coniferous tree yet shedding his needles every fall like some regular nut tree or something. Well let me tell you, this one’s on the up and up. The names, the needle-shed thing, the cones -they all make this one unique.

Tamaracks are high northern trees of the Canadian taiga whose range barely extends into the United States.  While throughout its vast range it will grow in upland areas, here in S.E. Michigan the tamarack is pretty much restricted to low boggy and wet areas. More often than not, you’ll need boots in order to get close to one, and to get back from visiting one, in the summer. It is a bit easier to call upon this tree in the wintertime thanks to the solid properties of frozen water.  From a distance their conical form betrays their relationship to other coniferous trees, such as the spruces, and they are easy to spot. In fact, they look like dead spruce trees in the winter because Tamaracks shed their short soft needles in the fall. They are deciduous conifers.

Up close, the brown flaky bark looks very much like that found on red pine trees (see here). The naked branches are covered with multiple spurs (see above and here) and clusters of tiny round cones. These woody spurs each support a dense cluster of 10-20 needles during the growing season – giving the summer branch a tufted appearance. The cones, perfect little examples of the conifer craft, are also clustered into neat bundles (see below). Each bears around twenty scales which protect an equal number of tadpole-shaped seeds. Birds such as finches and crossbills are dependent upon these winged morsels to get them through the cold season. It takes a lot of seeds to make a meal (each seed is only about 1/8 in. long) but these trees are prolific and finches have a lot of time on their hands – especially since they are not hindered by constant text messaging or i-phone “apps.” Historically, we humans have asked favors of this tree as well.

Tamarack is a native Algonquin word. The alternate name for this species, Hackmatack, originates from the Abenaki word meaning “snowshoe wood.” To these native dwellers of the forests of N.E. Canada and Maine, the tough flexible wood of the tamarack was ideal for making snowshoe frames. They, like the finches around them, depended upon this tree to get them through the snowy winters. Closer to home, the natural crooks found in the stumps and roots made for strong knee braces for wooden boat building. Nate Quillen, the Rockwood Michigan builder of legendary duck hunting boats during the late 1800’s, always used Tamarack knees to brace his craft. His use puts a whole new spin on the concept of “kneeding” Tamarack wood.

Quillen supposively obtained his Hackmatak knees from a swale just down the road from his shop along the Huron River. As far as I can tell, that stand doesn’t exist anymore but there are plenty of stands in the surrounding counties.  So, don’t you think it would be a nice thing to stop by and visit that Tamarack stand near you? Tell them you don’t want any wood or seeds at the present time, but just wanted to say “hello neighbor.”

February 19, 2010

Blue Birds Shining on Me

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:22 pm

Me thinks it was Henry David Thoreau who once said that the Bluebird “carries the sky on its back.” That is indeed an apt physical description of this intensely blue-backed bird which has come to represent all that is cheerful, sunny, and happy. No one wants the Starling of Sickness or the Fickle Flicker of Foul Play to perch upon their doorstep. Instead, it is the legendary Bluebird of Happiness that is expected to deliver those blue skies of spring and summer.  It is best to be cautious about these things, however.  These beautiful birds can also bear tidings of snow and cold gray skies upon their blue backs. A winter bluebird offers no more promise of spring than the Robin of Regret. The fact is, Robins overwinter and so do Bluebirds. The sight of a bluebird this time of year simply means “cloudy with a chance of flurries” but that is not a bad thing.

No matter what the season, the sight of these red, white and blue birds can never be considered a bad thing. It is safe to say that they are even more stunning when framed against a white winter landscape. I encountered a flock of these birds in the winter landscape of the Petersburg Game area the other day. It was cloudy with sporadic snow flurries that afternoon, but the birds added a welcome dash of color to it. There were about ten birds in the group and they all proved to be very timid.  I bring you evidence of my encounter in the form of a few hard earned photos.

My sighting, though welcome, wasn’t especially remarkable. This past season, around 40 bluebirds were counted in one regional Christmas bird count. They are now a regular feature of these counts. Their numbers have increased over the past few decades due to conservation efforts and bluebird house projects, not to any change in winter conditions. It is has been estimated that as much as one-third of any given eastern bluebird population will overwinter in their North Country range. It is a risky ploy. During some winters, such as those of the late seventies, all or most of a wintering group of birds will not survive due to the effects of severe cold, exposure, and starvation. Bluebirds are meant to be blue from warmth, not blue from being frozen stiff.

All these winterers ask of their cold weather habitat is that it provides good cover and food. Cover wise, they will cluster into dense thickets to avoid chilling winds. Some birds have been recorded using bluebird houses as winter roosting sites during especially cold periods. In these cases a half dozen birds may huddle together within the cramped space – sharing warmth and possibly telling each other summer stories until the worst is past.

Throughout the warm season, these small thrushes are insect eaters. During the cold season they switch to fleshy fruits such as dogwood berries and rose hips. Sumac berries are an especially important late winter food. It was no accident that “my” little gang of blues spent most of their time in the smooth sumac thickets (like shown in the first photo) or in the wild rose tangles (see here).

In these pictures, the male birds are easy to identify with their bright blue backs, ruddy chests and white bellies (see above). The Females possess a much more subtle coloration consisting of pale blue with a hint of redness (see below). I hate to call her dull. You never call a female dull because it is like referring to hip padding or slightly large thighs. Let’s just say she exhibits a “laid-back but assured look.”

A letter to the editor of the New York Times, written Jan. 22, 1901 by Emily Morton of upper New York State, perhaps puts the best spin on this winter bluebird thing while putting in a good word for the “laid back” females of the species. She writes: “…we have bluebirds all the winter months; they sing, too, on the milder sunny days, and can be seen flitting about even in the coldest weather, if the sun shines. There is one female, which is always more intelligent than the male, picking off juniper berries tied on a little branch directly in front of my window.”

O.K., we’ll leave it at that if it’s alright with you.

February 15, 2010

A Downy Reedpecker

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 am

You know, I can remember seeing my first real Lasioptera hungarica like it was yesterday. In fact, it was only yesterday that I found myself staring into the face (or in the general area of a face if it had one) of my first ever Hungarian Gall Midge. Yes, I know you are green with envy and perhaps even jealous with rage, but I can’t control your mis-placed emotions. I offer no apology because none is required.  I earned that privilege, dog-gone it. I earned it because of hard work, persistence and darn good luck and if you insist on going off on some hissy fit just because YOU weren’t there, well all I have to say is that it looks like SOMEBODY didn’t get enough candy hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Listen to me, if you combine the words “I” with “earned”, as in “I earned,” you get a word that looks like “learned.” True, this is just because a capitol “i” and a lower case “L” look kinda similar in this particular font, but SO what. Yes, I earned the right to learn and now I am going to share my learning with you. Ha, doesn’t SOMEBODY feel sheepish about now, eh!? After all you just said, you should be a-s-h-a-m-e-d of yourself. Well, for your information I DIDN’T get enough candy hearts either! They disappeared from my store shelves two days before Valentine’s Day while I was out earning some learning. How about them apples, eh?

Sorry, I need to lay down a minute while my wife goes out for some valentine hearts. I have a prescription.

O.K., now, where were we. Oh yes, the case of the minute Lasiopteran. Well, in spite of my earlier sugar deprived statement, I really didn’t find that little Hungarian all by myself. I was led to it by a Downy Woodpecker. These diminutive black & white birds are well-known for their wood chiseling skills. Hardly a winter walk passes where I don’t hear and/or see one of these guys diligently pecking away at some rotted branch in order to reach the juicy grubs hidden within. They ain’t called wood-peckers for nothing. But, it has come to my attention recently, like some candy heart thought balloon, that I have been seeing an inordinate number of downy woodpeckers working the reed beds lately. That heart balloon declared that “Woodpeckers is Reedpeckers 2” (It’s one of those really big heart candies with……….no, I am diverging again).

By reeds, I am referring to the Common Reed or Phragmites- those graceful but obnoxious plume-topped invaders that have all but choked out our Great lakes wetlands. These things grow in extremely dense beds and leave barely a foot of space between their tall jointed winter stems. Frankly, there is nothing good to say about them because of their severe impact on our wetland ecosystems. In short, they deserve valentine heart candy messages like “Die” or “Go Home.” Of course, nothing is that simple. Phragmites don’t understand English and they are not entirely alien to this continent, but that is a topic for another time. Downy Woodpeckers are the topic for this time. At least they are trying to earn some kind of living off of these pesty plants.

In a way, it is perfectly natural for Downy Woodpeckers to explore the inner resources of reed stems. They frequently probe into cat-tail stems and New York Ironweed stalks looking for stem-boring insects. They are experts at grabbing onto thin vertical perches as well. When pecking away at a reed, they grab on for dear life and deliver just enough blows to remove a sliver of the tough stem (see above and here). They pluck the prize out of the newly created window with a deft flip of the tongue and then move on. I became curious as to what these little prize packets actually were.

Getting access to random woodpecker holes within a bed of reeds is not easy. It took a few days before a fresh excavation came to me. Well, I actually approached the plant and not it me (it would be pretty weird to have a phragmites plant, with a hole in its head, walk up to me– sounds like a sugar induced dream dosesn’t it?).  In short, A downy few uppy and awayee from a reed stem close to the trail and left evidence of her work behind (see below). I split the hollow stem open and uncovered the prize in the form of a tiny yellowish larvae rolling around inside. This was the Hungarian Midge.

There are plenty of insects that feed exclusively on Phragmites. In Europe there are some 140 species that feed on this plant and at least 21 of them have successfully completed the overseas journey to our country. Many of these critters feed on the pithy interior of the hollow stems and a majority of these pith-eaters are yellowish non-descript worms.  Unfortunately, like conversation hearts without messages on them, they all look pretty much alike to the un-trained eye.

The telling thing about this non-descript grub was the black interior of the stem section in which it rolled about (see below & detail here). When the female Hungarian Midge lays her eggs in the green stem of a growing reed, she also introduces a type of fungus. This fungus forms a black mat of threads upon which the young larvae feed. The black fungus association is unique to the Hungarian Gall Midge. Up to 300 larvae can be found over-wintering inside one of these sooty chambers. In our case, there was only one lone and traumatized little larvae left –the rest of his winter mates were rolling about inside the belly of a reed-pecker.

Should we now shoot all Downy Woodpeckers because they are eating a potential biological control agent? No. These midges appear to do little if any real harm to their hosts. They leave no visible signs of damage on the stem either, which makes it all the more remarkable that the woodpeckers are able to locate them so efficiently.

So, what have we learned here? First of all, Downy Woodpeckers are apparently adding some exotic food to their menu. Secondly, alien plants can come with a host of  equally alien insects. Thirdly, never try to write a blog when thinking about other things, such as conversation hearts for instance, because it tends to skew the conversation a bit.

February 11, 2010

A Still Silent Shrew

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:09 pm

Short-tailed shrews, all shrews in fact, live their frantic little lives just a few minutes ahead of death. The grim reaper starts nipping away at their pink hairless newborn rears from the get-go and never relents until catching up – an event which usually occurs in less than 18 months and often within a single year. As few as 6% of any generation of shrews will live to see the following spring due to the efforts of the reaper’s assassins: predation (the grim raptor, for instance), disease, starvation, parasitism, and even nervous breakdown.

So, the sight of a dead shrew on a crisp winter morning should hardly merit any deep attention, right? Well, this one – laying still and silent on the walkway covered by a light dusting of snow – did catch my eye. My attention was claimed not because the poor little thing was dead but because there appeared to be no obvious reason for it to be dead. This alerted my inner Sherlock Holmes response.

I have read of at least one instance of a shrew dying from fright due to a clap of thunder and there are numerous accounts of these beasts starving to death after only 24 hours without food, but I found it hard to believe that either of these circumstances was involved. Thunderstorms are rarer than hen’s teeth during winter and I failed to see why this individual would just suddenly stop, drop, and roll over in the middle of a walkway.  I could, however, rule out an extreme case of intestinal gas or an inner attack of parasites because the thing had a small puncture hole in the back of his head. This, combined with the mussed fur and the presence of a few adherent cat-tail seeds, pointed toward an act of unfulfilled predation. Yes, my dear sirs and madams, this was a shrewicide.

It was a bloodless scene. Even though it looked as if there were blood about the shrew’s nose, this redness was due to being dead and frostbitten. What looked to be a raw piece of flesh nearby was only a bud cluster from a red maple. The puncture wound was deep but clean, my dear Watson, and it alone could have been the means of death. However, the fur about the mid-section was swirled and matted as if it had been slobbered upon and fatally crushed within the grip of some spitty assailant. I believe this to be the primary cause of death.

Having seen this circumstances many times, I, er…my inner Sherlock rather…should say this one was killed by a Red Fox. The canine killer seized his victim in the nearby marsh, brought it up to the walkway, and abandoned it to the elements.

This is the point in the story where my inner Watson agrees to certain parts of the deduction but claims some confusion as to the details. The fox connection is clear enough since Moriarity would never involve himself in such a small crime. It has been well documented that Red foxes are known for killing shrews then leaving them untouched. Other predators, such as cats and coyotes will also do this, but foxes seem to have the corner on this market. One study conducted in northern Michigan followed nearly a 1,000 miles of winter fox trails and discovered dozens of whole dead shrews along the way. In 1908, a naturalist reported over 20 dead shrews laying about the entrance of a fox den!

Short-tailed Shrews have a pair of glands on their flanks and a large belly gland that exudes musty secretions.  These glands are employed in marking territories but they also tend to discourage predation. The acting principle here is that a consumer will not eat a jelly filled donut if it smells and tastes like ear wax. This principle has no affect on owls, who eat them with gusto (a jelly donut is a jelly donut). Shrew remains do show up in fox droppings too, but not too often. They are negatively influenced by this chemical smearing. Why do they bother killing shrews if they don’t like them? It is believed that foxes often react with instinctive killer efficiency when spotting small running mammals. In other words, kill first then ask questions later. If the answer comes in the form of a shrewy mouthful of bad taste then the thing is dropped.

Short-tailed Shrews also happen to be venomous. Should they land a nifty little bite while engaged in a death struggle they can inject some distasteful nastiness. There is enough toxin in one shrew to kill 20 mice, according to one study, and to leave a significant tingle in the lips of an overanxious fox. I do wonder if the scientists in that study actually lined up a bunch of mice and invited them in one by one – the nurse poking her head through the door and saying “next” to the terrified mice in the waiting room, but this is neither here nor there. That the dead shrew in question was there on the pavement was enough to prove just how nasty shrews can be.

Inner Watson did ask one more question upon summing up this case. How is it that you deduce that the shrew was killed in the nearby marsh and not right there on the walkway? My inner Holmes placed his fingertips together and leaned forward in his chair to answer his partner. “The cat-tail seeds adhering to the victim’s body fur were incorporated into it, you see. They were stuck onto to the dried slobber rather than randomly blown upon it,” he replied. “Our careless Reynard dove upon his prey amid the fluffy cat-tail heads. He got a mouthful of shrew and fluff and carried the disgusting combination over to the path before realizing his mistake.”

With that last interaction, I stopped talking to myself and moved on. The tiny body was missiled back over the hedge and into the marsh from whence…er, where… it came.

February 8, 2010

Just Add Seed

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:02 pm

I am about to do something for which I must apologize ahead of time. I am going to talk to you about some birds that came to my feeder. Normally this type of thing would not be a part of my venue for a number of reasons. First of all, unless something dramatic happens such as a Cooper’s Hawk attack or the appearance of some rare Siberian finch, there is little to actually relate except a listing of everyday species. Secondly, and most importantly in my case, I do not have a bird feeder. I never have and probably never will operate a feeding station at my current house. I will often explain the second issue by saying that “my” birds have plenty of natural forage on my acre and a half to survive on their own, but the true reason is that I am simply too lazy. Now, knowing the above facts, please allow me to continue.

Recently, I was the recipient of a medium sized bag of assorted bird feed which placed me into a position of professional compromise. I normally don’t feed because I don’t normally get feed but when suddenly with feed I had no choice but to feed it – to the birds for which they were intended, in other words. Do you follow? I decided to pour the contents of the bag on top of an old barrel which decorates our front yard. It provided a perfect surface for a feeder because it was located within easy view of my entryway. What followed was fascinating. Birds came, you see, but not right away.

The situation presented an opportunity to do a bit of an experiment. I wondered how long it would take before the bounty was discovered. As creatures of habit, birds are prone to visit their favorite feeding stations like clockwork. In fact, for those of you who do operate feeding stations, you know that the feathered patrons will often hang around and stare at you until you re-fill an empty feeder. It’s all about guilt. But, how do these purveyors of guilt uncover new situations like mine?

It took about a week before the pile was discovered. A light dusting of snow had covered the assortment of millet, thistle, sunflower, and peanuts by then, but the feeder suddenly became a bustling city of gluttony on one cold Saturday morning. It happened all at once and apparently out of the blue. The big feed lasted for several days and was over as quickly as it began. It was if I had planted bird seed, added a sprinkling of moisture, and watched it explode into a crop of birds.  I had a blooming bird Chia Pet. (Yes, I know you regular “feeder types” out there are saying “well, duh…that’s the idea,” but hold on a minute).

The guest list initially included the usual suspects. Black-capped Chickadees were the first on site in the very early dawn. Tufted Titmice, Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, House Sparrows, and Blue Jays soon followed. Each plundered in their own way. The Blue Jays grabbed the peanuts and flew off to a selected perch to hammer their prize open. The Chickadees and Titmice did the same with the sunflower seeds. The cardinals and house sparrows planted their selves in the middle of the pile and employed their heavy beaks to shear open seed husks. There was nothing out of the ordinary with this crew.

Both of my local squirrels, the Fox and Red variety, also stopped in for a bite or two or a hundred. Again, this was to be expected. My interest was piqued, however, when a large flock of House Finches arrived on the scene (see above and here). These birds are common enough yard birds, but I’d not seen any in my neck of the woods for some time. Now there were a few dozen of these red-splashed finches within a few feet of my front door.  The females are without the reddish hue, but instead are marked by prominent brown and cream streaking. A lone Goldfinch, dressed in somber winter wear, joined his fellow finches for a feed (see here – the bird at the lower right). Like their old-world relations the House Sparrows, the House & Gold Finches also crack their seeds with a shearing action by their robust beaks.

A single male Red-bellied Woodpecker stopped in for a sampling (see below) but was intimidated by the nervous actions of the finches. A whole host of puffy Dark-eyed juncos paid a visit, but then again these guys are a regular feature of my “naturally endowed” yard. Like many older folk, I find it hard to call these little gray and white birds by this name, having grown up with much more descriptive name of “Slate-colored Juncos.”  I also have a real problem with calling Old Squaw Ducks with the blander, and current title, of Long-tailed Duck but that is neither here nor there.

Fortunately, there were no Old Squaw Ducks or Long-tailed Ducks at my temporary feeder to worry about but there was at least one unusual visitor in the form of a gimpy female Cowbird (see below). This species is typically a migrant – heading south to avoid the bitter teeth of winter. There are exceptions to every natural rule, so it is not un-heard of to see Cowbirds overwintering but it is a tad unusual. This bird was obviously nursing a bum right leg, although she didn’t appear to be worse for wear. No doubt she was eyeing up her fellow feeder mates to determine which one would eventually raise her young this spring (they are nest parasites).

The most surprising visitor was a single Carolina Wren who showed up late in the day. He probed the ground around the base of the barrel for seed and only allowed for a few fleeting views before moving on. True to their name, these hefty wrens originated in the southern U.S. They have slowly spread into the Great Lakes region over the past twenty years or so to the point where they are now regular summer residents and consistent winter residents as well. This has been a bad winter for these wrens for some reason so they have not been as prominent as in years past.  Normally insect eaters, they willingly switch to a seed/plant diet when necessary. You know, when in frigid Rome do as the other frigid Romans do.

The previously described scene repeated itself on the following day – without the House finches or the Carolina Wren – and ceased altogether once the seed was gone. So, after all this gloating about “my” feeder birds, we are left with the initial question. How do they find remote food sources? I suspect that these critters go by visual clues supplemented by continual curiosity. Some randomly seek while others watch other birds seeking. I believe that the chickadees found the place first, based on their habit of constant exploration and chance discovery. The activity of these birds attracted the rest of the feathered flock like a blue light special at K-Mart. The secret was out – as was my stock of seed.  I could go out and get some more but…

February 3, 2010

What Was and Will Be

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:46 pm

The wonderful thing about nature, and life in general, is that there is always a “was”, an “is”, and a “will be” at any given moment. A mid-winter walk is a great time to confirm this. At the time- my “is” consisted of a walk along a bitter cold marsh. The watery landscape was locked in the grip of a thick pavement of black ice, the nearby woodlot was silent, and the place was devoid of active life. All sensible creatures were tucked away and under cover. A light wind provided a constant reminder to this non-sensible creature that it is wind chill, and not the actual temperature, that rules the tip of my frozen nose.

The absence of evident life, however, is not evidence of absence. No, I didn’t make that up, but it certainly fits. There were plenty of life signs in the form of coyote & raccoon tracks. The raccoon apparently enjoying a frisky night out in the cold air as he tramped along the boardwalk and the coyote engaging in a territorial patrol along the cat-tail edge of the ice (perhaps looking for raccoons). A mink also passed by the previous evening – half tunneling/half bounding through the drifted snow. You could say that these tracks are evidence of what was.

I, still firmly in the world of “is”, came upon a different kind of “was” in the form of a few Long-billed Marsh Wren nests (see below and here). These well concealed clusters of plant fiber are extremely well camouflaged during the summer, but in the dead of winter these structures almost stand out. I say almost because they still share the dead brown hues of their cat-tail surroundings and are only a few feet above the ice (former water) level. If I hadn’t previously known of their existence I doubt I would have found them on this day. The wrens were very active in this part of the marsh and the antics of a particularly animated male called them to my attention way back in July. Now, abandoned and deteriorating, the nests stand as testaments to “what was.”

These nests are oval or lozenge shaped with a side entrance hole. This entrance doesn’t show up well in the photo because the shape was somewhat compressed, but it is there. Some of the literature claims that these holes usually face west or south but I couldn’t tell you what the reality was in this case. I was too cold to care, I guess.  They are made up of tightly woven cat-tail leaves integrated within a half dozen supporting cat-tail stems. One of the unique features of Marsh Wren nests is that you rarely find just one. There are usually several – up to a dozen – located in a relatively small area. This is why I refer to them in the plural.

During the breeding season, the male birds go on a building blitz in the hopes that a female will take a liking to at least one of them. Once she chooses her favorite, the pair puts on the finishing touches (consisting of a fine layer of soft cat-tail down lining the interior) and commences the business of wrenlet raising. Lucky males are sometimes able to attract an additional female to take up residence in one of the other nests. The whole nest complex forms a love commune of sorts. This particular commune was a small one consisting of only two nests – both of which look like they had been occupied. Once the season was over the real nest (s), and the so-called dummy nests, were abandoned to the elements and to the curious eye of a passing naturalist.

Further down the trail, in the woodlot, a cluster of Eastern Tent Caterpillar eggs stood as an example of something that “will be” (see above and here).   This egg mass, laid back in mid-summer, represents the efforts of a single female Tent caterpillar Moth who glued about 200 circular white eggs around a pencil sized Black Cherry twig. They were laid long before the cold season but were prepared in such a way as to withstand all but the harshest of winters. To insure that her clutch will survive the winter, she covered them with bubbly coating of natural shellac called Spumaline. Now, here is where things stray from the expected.

Soon after they were laid in the summer, the young caterpillars developed into fully formed larvae – taking about three weeks to become complete.  Instead of hatching, however, they remained within their egg shells and entered into a state of hibernation (diapause) within their vanished nursery. A high dosage of Glycerol in their body will allow them to super-cool without freezing as the “r” months progress. Oddly enough, the varnish covering the egg cluster actually attracts moisture rather than repels it. This prevents the eggs from drying out. The bubbly formation of the spumaline structure also acts like a solar heater and traps radiant energy. Consequently, these egg masses are maintained at temperatures slightly warmer than the surrounding air. Now, tell me that’s not incredible (don’t call, just write your response on a crisp $5 bill).

Inside this gray shiny mass are hundreds of moist, warmish little life forms. Like long distance space travelers they are kept in suspended animation until their capsules arrive at the other side of the year. Then they will eventually exit and begin to feed on the first fresh leaflets of the new year. For now, they represent the spring that “will be.”

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