Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 31, 2010

There is a Balm in Gilead

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:12 pm

My ever patient wife granted my request without hesitation but she did show a little consternation. I asked her to smell my finger. I once had an uncle who would occasionally request that we pull on his extended pinkie finger to see what happened, but that was different. I have never pulled that particular trick on anyone – especially on my lovely wife. One wouldn’t continue in a married state if that wasn’t the case. Therefore, she complied without explanation and took a tentative whiff of my extended index finger. “It smells like beer,” she exclaimed.

She shot me a slightly perturbed glance as I laughed a bit too hard at that answer. I didn’t know what to expect, but that certainly wasn’t it. She smelled it again and said “Yes, beer – well, what is it?”  “It’s Cottonwood resin,” I answered. “Oh really,” she dead-panned without requesting further explanation.

All of this followed the better part of the day in which I kept smelling my own fingers. While out enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon I came upon the swollen buds of a Cottonwood tree (see above) and decided to take a few pictures, just in case I had nothing else to talk about in my next blog. If the day yielded nothing further, then I could at least talk about exploding buds and how much we malign cottonwood trees etc., etc. If I later happened upon the tracks of, say, …a Mountain Lion or something, then I could shift my attentions to that subject (yes, this is how I carefully plan out my topics).  I reached up to pull the bud bearing branch down to my level and noticed the bud scales were coated in thick yellow lacquer. A bit of this sticky substance rubbed off on my finger and thus the sniffing began. To me, the fragrance almost had a citrus-like quality and offered a pleasant scent befitting the best of potpourris. Needless to say, I did not encounter any Puma paw prints, but that was of no consequence. I was already on a scent.

Eastern Cottonwoods are the most common local representative of the Populus family in this neck of the woods. So, this is the species (P. deltoides) I am talking about in reference to this bud question. Their large winter buds, covered with 5 or 6 scales, are normally shellacked with a shiny resinous coating. This layer not only acts to protect the bud contents from the weather but also serves as a great species identifier. There are a few other members of the popular family that have similar buds, such as the Black Cottonwood and the Balm of Gilead, but they are not from ‘round these parts.

For a very brief time in early spring, just before the buds are “ready to blow”, this resin becomes soft and drippy and literally beads up on the scales (see above). At this time of year, the cottonwoods (as well as those other species) offer us a rare product in the form of these golden droplets.

People have harvested this time-limited resin for centuries for both practical and therapeutic reasons. Native use included making a sticky glue to attach sinew-bound arrow and dart tips as well as the feather fletching. Healing salves, infused with oils, are still made with cottonwood resin as the primary ingredient. The raw stuff has anti-microbial properties and smells good to boot (like beer or citrus depending on who you talk to). The Balm of Gilead tree got its name based on this wonderful resinous balm – even though the real Balm of Gilead does not come from members of the popular tribe. Regardless, the generic name for all Populus bud resin is Balm of Gilead.

Heck, even honeybees gather Cottonwood bud resin to make “bee-glue” – a mixture of wax and resin – to seal up air holes and gaps in the colony wall. Better known as propolis, this anti-fungal material is tough and water-resistant.

The only drawback to this bud resin is that it doesn’t exist in harvestable condition for long. The resinous bud scales peel off and drop within a week. As soon as the buds open and begin to expose their catkins (see below and here) and/or leaves, the resin-of-the-gods is no longer available. I know it’s hard to believe that a phrase like “resin-of-the-gods” could ever be applied to a lowly Cottonwood tree, but I guess you’ll need to get used to it.

Knowing all this, I’ll wager that you might give your neighborhood cottonwood another look. Don’t hesitate, this soothing offer ends soon. Go ahead, smell that finger (but don’t pull on it!).

March 28, 2010

How Much Smack Can a Wood Frog Take?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:45 pm

I recently stopped by my favorite roadside ditch to take in the Chorus Frog symphony. The place is in west Monroe County along a relatively quiet stretch of country road. Although there are hundreds of wet places about where these frogs can be heard, there are only a few where they can be seen as well.  Even though Chorus Frogs are deafeningly loud, they are tiny and well camouflaged. In wet areas studded with cat-tail stems and flooded vegetation they are impossible to see even when agonizingly close to the listener. As expected, the residents of my ditch of choice were in full voice by mid day – encouraged by the warming rays of the sun and air temperatures in the mid-sixties. Fortunately, they were also in full view. They gather there in the tea colored water at a place possessing very little cover, so a cautious human being can take in all the auditory and visual action at once.

Watching frogs breed is a bit voyeuristic, but it’s not like they are trying to keep anything secret. The males engage in prolonged bouts of intensive high-decibel trilling as they vie for the attentions of the females. The females, on the other hand, remain mute.  They engage in prolonged bouts of listening while taking careful measure of their potential mates (see an enraptured female eying up a potential beau in the photo below). There was never any indication of romance in the eyes of either sex, by the way. Both remained fixed in a bulging stare throughout the whole process. Each calling male inflated his throat into a marble sized sac in order to utter his love trills (see video here). When the two sexes did finally come together, the affair became explosive. Like magnet to steel, the male leaps onto the female. He groans, she groans, and the two wrestle a bit until he finally locks her into an inescapable half nelson grip. He’ll hang on until she eventually decides to lay her eggs – at which point he’ll fertilize the clutch as it is laid.

The Chorus Frog orgy was enough to give anyone their fix of amphi-sexuality, but this day offered a bit more. Distributed out amongst their noisy cousins, a host of larger Wood Frogs quietly lingered about the ditch water (see first photo). Given that Chorus frogs are only about one inch long and the Wood Frogs all of two or three inches, the term “larger” is relative.

Although their background color can vary from pale pinkish to deep bronze, Wood frogs are easily identified by their dark bandit masks and prominent “fold lines” along the back. The females are larger and lighter colored than the males. According to one reference (I don’t like to make everything up!) the shape of the webbing between the toes of the hind feet is sexually diagnostic. Males have convex edges and females have concave edges.  Good luck on this one. Like the Chorus Frogs, these frogs gather at temporary pools to make whoopee for only about a week each year. They are explosive breeders. Instead of trilling, the male Wood Frogs quack like miniature ducks. Perhaps overwhelmed by the incessant banter of the Chorus around them, these frogs were relatively quiet on this day. They only let out a tentative “quack” every now and then.

I decided to try an experiment and see if I couldn’t elicit some kind of hot-blooded response in one or two of the males. They were a bit boring on this lazy afternoon. Breeding Woodies can be aggressive creatures. They will forcefully wrestle all comers and have been known to squeeze females so hard that the poor dames literally bust open. The over-sexed males are equipped with Popeye-like forearms and swollen thumbs with large nuptial pads. They are ready to r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rumble.

Knowing that my chances would be nil had I elected to dress up like a giant female Wood Frog, my ploy was simply to cluck like a rival male and boil some cold blood. You can see the results of this attempt in this short video (see here), but I can sum it up for you – it worked.

Before training my lens on one of the languid males I let out a few clucks just for laughs. He responded cluck for cluck. I guess we were exchanging a few “yeahs” and “oh yeah, says who’s.” Once I got the camera going and continued with a few more clucks (you can clearly hear my distinguished chicken-like smack talk on the sound track) he quickly reached a flash point. Erupting into a slur of profanity, he propelled in my general direction with a few powerful thrusts of his back legs and continued to let the blue language fly until turning about to return to his corner of the ditch. ‘Nuf said, dog! His activity stirred up a few adjacent Woodies and got them going for several minutes before quieting down.

In answer to the question “how much smack can a wood frog take if a wood frog could take smack?” the answer “not much – not much at all.”

March 24, 2010

Go Ottaway

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

It wasn’t the best day to be out and about in a Lake Erie marsh, but it was the only day of the month that cars were allowed out onto the dikes of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, so there was no choice. Once a month, this refuge located along the south shore about 15 miles east of Toledo, Ohio, throws open the gates for vehicle access to the seven mile drive through the management units. It wasn’t exactly bitter, but let’s just say it was a crisp windy day that found me out scanning the extensive marsh. I wasn’t alone – there were dozens of birders out there slamming on brakes, throwing open their doors, and hastily setting up their spotting scopes as various spring waterfowl migrants were spotted on the distant horizon. Dozens more “curiosity drivers” poked along the route to eye the scene and drink coffee from their thermoses. One brave fellow, dressed in black with a formidable scarf, pedaled the dirt roads on his bike.

I wasn’t out there to look at Northern Shoveler ducks from three miles away, however. I guess I’d place myself somewhere between the curiosity drivers and the birders. I didn’t ignore the flights of immature bald eagles cavorting over the willow studded landscape, but I didn’t leap from the car to watch them either. I confirmed nearly all my sightings through the zoom feature of my camera lens from within the warm confines of my car. No, admittedly wimplike, I was more bent on comfortably scanning the muskrat lodge dotted waterscape from within my mobile heated blind.

There were two features that not only caused me to put on my brakes, but to open my windows as well: Red-winged Blackbirds and Trumpeter Swans.  Please allow me to explain the former and elaborate on the latter.

Admitting to halting any forward progression in order to stare at a Red-wing, especially when in a world class marsh, is tantamount to an admission of birder heresy.  I’ve always had a soft spot for these guys and rarely pass up the opportunity to watch the males go through their spring courtship rituals. I’ve seen it a million times and expect to witness it a million more before I eventually travel to the great dike in the sky (heaven is a huge freshwater marsh, by the way). The black and red fellows cavorting along these earthly dikes ignored the passing traffic and allowed themselves to be observed at rather close quarters.

One thing that became clear regarding these early spring singers is that most have not yet achieved their glossy black feathering (see above). Still retaining their winter colors, the males looked a bit grizzled. The feathers of their back and breast feathers were edged in buffy browns and creams. The birds will not molt to achieve their breeding finery, but as spring advances these light edges will eventually wear off to leave only the black portion. In other words, these feathers recede as the season advances.

One male bird caught my attention because, in addition to the grizzling, he sported a conspicuous white patch on this wing (see below & here). This is not a normal part of red-wing décor, but among this group of highly variable birds it is to be expected.  Like many of his typically colored counterparts, he was taking advantage of the gentle height of a muskrat lodge to perform his “oak-a-lee-ah” routine. He paused to admire himself in the water’s reflection before flying off to a higher perch on another lodge. Whether this unusual swatch of white will help him roll in the “chicks” remains to be seen. Who knows, among red-wings this could be the equivalent of a huge facial mole with hair sprouting out of it!

Of the Trumpeter Swans, I should not have to offer any excuse for gawking. These majestic birds are the largest members of the waterfowl family in the world and they stand out like gigantic white thumbs against the gray wind-blown water. In this part of the world, we’ve only got three swans to pick from: the unfortunate alien Mute, the glorious migrant Tundra, and the re-introduced Trumpeters. The state of Ohio has released dozens of Trumpeters back to their historic haunts over the past decade (being wiped out of the east by the turn of the last century) so the opportunity to see them is increasing year by year. Some have argued that these birds were never common in the Great Lakes region originally, but none can argue that they look good here (see photo at beginning and detail here).

Large size (reaching up to 28 pounds and 4 feet long with 8 foot wingspans), solid black bill, and straight neck posture are features that separate these swans from all others. These identifying visual traits are un-necessary once the fowls open their beaks to speak their minds. True to their name, they utter blasts that sound like one of those old fashioned car horns – not the “a-oog-ga” kind but the coiled trumpet “honka honka” kind.  There is no other bird that sounds quite like that.

I was lucky enough to spot a mated pair, one of several that apparently breed at the Ottawa refuge. These two birds were engaged in some early pair bonding. Take a look at the movie clip (here) and you’ll see them perform a bit of bill dipping. Each pump of the head elicited a honk as if a bellows handle were pulled.

One of the swans sported a neck collar about its mineral-stained neck. These bands are used by researchers to keep tabs on individual birds, but their use has been curtailed in recent years. They are used along with the more traditional aluminum leg bands. One of the distinct advantages of a neck band is that it can be read through a pair of binoculars while leg bands can’t be read until the bird is in hand – either through death or re-capture. Each region has a color and number/lettering code. This bird bore what looked to be the code 8A9 on a yellow plastic background which indicated that it was banded in Ohio. The Ohio based code is a yellow collar with a number-letter-number sequence. This same Trumpeter, or what I believe was the same bird, was recorded at the refuge last April as well.

Had I more confidence in the identity of the final digit, I could have reported the bird through the 1-800-327-BAND hotline (this is a real number and not my usual made up stuff). As it was, I wasn’t 100% sure of the whole code so I took the road of caution and remained a Mute swan. It was already bad enough that I was spending my valuable time at watching red-wings. It would have been especially embarrassing to find out that the real 8A9 was dead. This would be like reporting an Elvis sighting, or more instrument appropriately, a Louis Armstrong sighting. Besides, I’m positive that the bird was reported at least a dozen times by my fellow dike drivers. I’ll bet even the darkly clad biker called it in.

March 21, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:45 pm

I consider it somewhat significant that I saw my first woodchuck of the season about four days before the official start of Spring. It was on St. Patty’s day to be exact and it was in the form of a dim looking chuck seeking a bit o’ the green.  He was actually seeking a bite o’ the green – as in grasses and herbs along the edge of a roadway.  Since I’ve seen ‘chucks out and about at all times of the winter, including January, the fact that this one was out four days before the vernal equinox was not especially important, but the fact that he was alive was.   It is more typical for me to see the first chuck of the season as a roadkill.

This chuck was doing what most up-chucks do when they emerge from hibernation. They head for the nearest grassy hillside or greenway seeking greens because they are very hungry after 3-4 months of fasting. Roadsides are especially appealing because the banked right-of-ways offer precocious sun-warmed grasses.  Unfortunately, to a starving disoriented whistlepig the other side of the road always looks greener.  Of this I need not say more.

My top ‘o the morning chuck looked rather dusty, befuddled, and buck-toothy. He looked exactly like what you’d expect from a creature that just awoke from a winter long coma. Just a few weeks ago, his heart was barely pumping at 3 beats per minute and his rectal temperature was 38-40 degrees F.  Now that his heart is racing at around 90 beats per minute and his body temperature is over 90 degrees, he is out looking to get even with the guy who took his rectal temperature! But, first there is the need to eat.

The second duty of a newly risen chuck is to thank his lucky stars that he is alive. Hibernation is a hazardous thing to do and many chucks end up in eternal sleep due to poor body conditions, flooding, and improper application of rectal thermometers by scientists. They leave their dead remains neatly curled up in the bedroom. Male woodchucks start their year out seeking females since the breeding season begins in March and continues through the end of April. The females start their year out by cleaning out their dens in anticipation of soon “being in a motherly state.”

In the absence of actually seeing a live or once-live animal, a visit to your local woodchuck den will reveal whether your local population is up and Adam yet. Evidence of spring cleaning (see above) around the den entrance is a good sign (it’s a bad sign if you are a gardener, but good if your garden is located across a road from the den!). Chucks are fastidious burrow tenders and will make every effort to keep their quarters clean. Just because their homes are made of dirt doesn’t mean they have to be dirty.

A typical tunnel system will be some 25 feet long and about 5 feet underground. A side chamber, tucked well back and in along one of the corridors, serves as a nest and sleeping chamber. It is lined with dried grasses and leaves in the fall to serve as a winter coma chamber. This old laundry is the first to go out the front door come spring and it can be easily seen scattered over the soil pile.

Normal den systems have a main entrance with a conspicuous pile of dirt and a spy hole entrance/exit for subtle departures. The spy hole is usually dirt free since it is excavated from the inside. I recently came upon a pair of den entrances that both displayed evidence of cleaning. Oddly enough, both also contained raccoon remains among the stale leaves and newly dusted dirt (see below and here).

Apparently skeleton removal is a regular item on the spring woodchuck to-do list. it is not unusual to find the remains of former woodchucks cast from the burrow as well as rabbit, opossum, or other such subterranean creatures. Most of these parts are from previous occupants who died many years before in some ante-chamber – you know like the mother from the Bates Motel.

It is most likely that several raccoons had claimed these dens as winter retreats at some point but had the rudeness to die once inside.  Raccoons do that, you know. One of the skulls (see here) showed signs that it had been skinned by a trapper and displayed many fine cut lines about the snout. Another fully skinned raccoon probably dragged this carcass down into the burrow in order to feed on it. Raccoons do that also, you know.   The chucks, well, they just clean up and go about their lives.

March 17, 2010

The Elusive Lotus Jellyfish and Other Things

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:42 pm

The American Lotus is nowhere to be seen in late winter. The Lake Erie bays and shallows where this magnificent plant will hold court in late summer are now seemingly barren of life –featureless mud flats covered by a steely gray veneer of water. A mid-March visitor to these former beds will encounter the ice shredded remains of last year’s stems and leaves lying on the muddy bottom and seemingly little else. Even now, at the lowest point in the lotus year, there are a few things worth noting under those silty debris laden sheets. There are “Lotus Jellyfish,” for instance.

It is a miracle that even after a winter’s worth of roiling waves, nor’easters, shearing ice floes, and solid ice packs there are some remnant lotus leaves remaining. These surviving structures represent the skeletal form of the leaf. Because the leaves were so large to begin with (2 feet wide and up to 6 feet tall), their spidery remnants are sizable as well. In hand the central support stalk is reduced to a hub on a wheel with the radiating veins dangling over the palm like so many tentacles on a jellyfish.  The multiple air channels that run the length of portion of the plant are clearly visible on the remains of the central stalk (see here in a closer view).

Texturally these leaf remnants are very un-jellyfish like with tough fibrous sinews holding them together. Mentally, however, they look like jellyfish and thus the reason behind my own little secret name. If one is so inclined, and one is sure no one is looking, one can “swim” them through the air and sing “Under de sea, under de ocean…” to enhance the effect (this is what winter does to some northern people). Sure, some of you dignified folk out there might consider this odd, but wait until I catch you jumping up and down like an inebriated chimp when your basketball teams advances in the march madness brackets.

Speaking of chimps, which we really weren’t but for lack of a better segue I am going to seize the opportunity, how about those “Lotus Bananas” rolling around the muddy bed, eh?  Again, I may be using a seemingly odd term here, but the name is an apt one to describe the occasional lotus tuber that pops to the surface. These things really do look like pale yellow bananas or, more properly, like those little plantains that you see next to the Ugli fruits at the grocer.

Unless you are an Asian chef or health food aficionado, there is a good chance you’ve never seen a lotus tuber. Even fewer get a chance to see an American Lotus tuber. Chinese lotus “root” has long been available as a food source and now can be purchased on-line through specialty vendors. The Asian species is nearly identical to our American plant save for the color of the blossom. The American Lotus tuber, although once enjoyed as a food resource by native tribes, does not have the market enjoyed by its eastern cousin. You also don’t see them because normally they are buried deep in the mud.

Lotus plants are perennial. They re-sprout every year from these solid starchy tubers. If you could completely strip away the muddy bottom of a lotus bed you’d see a network of these structures connected to each other like sausage links. Even though these plants produce seeds, they depend primarily upon tubers to get the job done. The seeds can lie dormant for centuries if need be so they are in no rush to sprout. Individual tubers can be up to 10 inches long and each has an “eye” from which the new sprouts and rootlets emerge.

Take a good look at this tuber I found. It had been severed by the action of the winter storms and was seeking a new place at the corner of the bed. This was only the second fresh tuber that I have found in close to two decades of looking. Like a banana, it was slightly squarish in cross section, but unlike a banana it was hard like a potato. You’ll see that the eye end has a stout pointed bud coming out along with a section of connecting stem. A patch of raised dimples just behind the eye is where the rootlets will eventually originate.

I am not about to slice this example open. There are plenty of oriental tubers out there to cut open and they can serve as proxy American lotus examples.  The interior of a fresh cut tuber is colored like old ivory and is riddled with a series of parallel air channels. When sliced in cross section, the pieces look like Swiss Cheese.  Wow, I’ve just compared an American Lotus tuber to a sausage, a banana, and a piece of European cheese without blinking an eye!

If you would like to handle one of these Swiss bananas, you can buy one of these things on eBay for $24.98 plus shipping (as long as no one else bids against you) but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a proper mud bed to put it in. Besides, I have a perfectly good example that I’d be willing to part with for say….$23.45 -if you are willing to sing the entire “Under de Ocean” song while holding a Lotus Jellyfish in one hand. On the other hand, recognizing that the lotus is a protected species in Michigan, I probably should put this one back “under de mud” and leave sleeping tubers lay.

March 14, 2010

Bandits in the Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:31 pm

There are, according to one source, three ways to keep raccoons out of your garbage. It is difficult to narrow down the bountiful advice field in this category, but this three part plan seems to sum them all up pretty well. The first technique is to make your garbage inaccessible. The second involves making your garbage less smelly and the third is to install a latch or some sort of locking lid device on your container. That’s all there is to it.

In other words, there are ways to thwart ‘coons at their game. Suspend your trash can from a rope attached to a high limb, in the manner of keeping your goods safe when camping in bear country, and you can outwit even the wiliest of raccoons.  Use steel cable at all times. Keep your trash clean by washing every item that goes into the bag – there is nothing worse than trashy trash that smells. Don’t throw away any food, ever. Eat everything right down to the bread crust and those hardened crusty edges on baked lasagna. Lick the yogurt lids and mail all unwanted food scraps to France (simply address package to “Parlay Voo, France” and mail from a neighboring city). Just to be safe, throw a bucket of mothballs and hot pepper sauce into the trash can each week. You’ll need to be careful, however, that the can doesn’t accidentally tip and dump this hazardous mixture into your eyes as you are hoisting it into the air with your improvised pulley system.

If you use a padlock to secure your lid, make sure it is one of those explosive kinds that detonate when being picked. Finally, weld the lid of your trash container shut and move to Antarctica. If you do all of these things, you will likely win the Raccoon wars. You can, of course, just admit that raccoons are unbeatable when alive. I repeat: when alive. Country people don’t seem to have the same garbage problem that suburban folk do because they acknowledge the simple truth contained in this last phrase.  Most country people do not lick their yogurt lids and that is a fact.

In the end, Raccoons overcome all efforts to stop them – including the country method – because they are just too good at what they do. They are resourceful omnivores. This means that there are few things they won’t eat. Animal or vegetable, fresh or rotten, live or dead, it doesn’t matter.  In a natural setting this means a diet of fruits, berries, rotten fruits, bird eggs, baby birds, turtle eggs, baby mice, baby rabbits, dead baby mice, dead baby rabbits, live crayfish and even dead ones.  In un-natural settings, around human neighborhoods, this menu translates into dead Baby Ruth bars and those crusty baked lasagna edge pieces.

Raccoons are not especially intelligent, it’s just that they are naturally equipped to find food wherever it exists. These large members of the weasel family are endowed with an incredible sense of smell combined with a pair of marvelously dexterous “hands.”  In old French -Parlay Voo French -they were called “Raton Laveurs” which meant “users of little hands” (at least that’s what some country people told me).  With these hands they can pop open the tightest lids, dig into the toughest insulation, and reach into the narrowest crack to pull out whatever may lie deep within.  I recently watched a raccoon smell about a garbage bag until reaching a particular point. He bit into that one spot to tear a small hole in the plastic and then reached in with his hands to pull out a single cookie. He held that cookie and manipulated it with both hands before transferring it to his mouth and running off. He excised that prize like a surgeon removes a gall bladder.

Let’s hope and pray that raccoons don’t develop opposable thumbs. If they do, they will no longer require us to overcook their lasagna because they will do it themselves. We’ll find them breaking into our homes and, using our microwaves, preparing entire meals on their own.  They will steal our T.V. remotes and drive us mad as they click through the channels from their safe perch on the rooftop. Soon they will learn to fly small aircraft to France to get their desserts. We will soon be receiving crudely addressed packages plastered with foreign stamps. The packages will contain un-licked yogurt lids.

March 11, 2010

Meadow Mouse Mazes

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:34 pm

As the snow slowly recedes due to the recent onslaught of warm late winter temperatures, two things start to become apparent. First of all, human folk enter into a prolonged state of clothing confusion. Not knowing what to wear on a 42 degree (Fahrenheit) day, otherwise sane people walk about in sleeves and shorts next to others garbed in winter coats and knit hats while wearing sandals. (This discussion doesn’t apply to teenagers, by the way, due to the defining word “sane”).  This seasonal dementia is often accompanied by overly hopeful proclamations about spring and greatly exaggerated stories about the death of old man winter. The second thing that happens is that those secret winter tunnel systems used by Meadow Voles are now being exposed for the world to see.  I’ve not much more to say about the first phenomenon, but we should spend some time with the second because we only have a small window of opportunity to discuss it.

Meadow Voles, or Field mice, have often been the subject of death and destruction talk on this blog. I can’t count how many times I’ve referred to them as “food”, “prey”, or “victims” because, as a species, they are collectively “born to be eaten” by predators.  Right now, however, we have an opportunity to sneak a peek at the living breathing life a vole without having pieces of a dead one in hand.  We can see evidence of their behavior written on the grass.

One of the habitual traits of these grass-eating mice is to construct so-called surface tunnels through dense grassy habitat.  These tunnels are above-ground passageways that wind through the dense stems and around the clumpy growth. The vole creates these narrow passageways by literally eating through the stems and/or pushing them aside.  As the mice zoom back and forth along these inter-grass highways their repeated use eventually tramples the floor down to a mix of bare dirt and grass clippings.  These passage routes are purposely constructed so that they are hard to see from above – they are intended to be “no prey” zones. The mice live their short little lives completely within this sealed tunnel zone like tiny little bubble children (I’m not sure what that means either, but it seemed like a strangely wise thing to say).

The density of voles within any given field area can be phenomenal and their highway building efforts can have a great impact. One small study estimated that a single acre might contain as much as 4.6 miles of tunneling. Fortunately these mice don’t mind being in the company of others of their kind and have been known to gather into communal nests in the winter.

Winter also provides Meadow Mice with an opportunity to expand their narrow home lives and exploit the lush and grassy suburbs adjacent to their weedy homelands. Under the cover of deep snow, they are able to lay out protected routes onto nearby short grass areas. These places lack cover but offer a rich harvest of tender shoots.  The markings that are revealed when the snow melts are the bottom halves of what used to be completely covered tunnels (the top half was snow, in other words).

As you can see in these views, the snow systems are very complex, indeed. These intricate paths weave around and cross each other so tightly that any individual vole is likely to run into his own butt while turning a corner.  One of the tunnel systems (see below) had a long trapezoidal run to to two distant corners and an equally long return route. I can offer no explanation for this feature other than being a jogging track of some sort.

Within the runs you can see regular latrine stations where the mice stopped to “rest” (see below).  It is worth noting that Meadow Voles don’t just crap everywhere they go – they actually restrict this activity to designated toilet rooms. Since their diet consists entirely of bulky green vegetation they need to eat up to 60% of their body weight per day in order to keep up. True, they only weight 2 ounces, but that is still a significant amount of eating and pooping to do. Put that into human terms and you’d be spending a significant amount of time on the porcelain throne trying to make room for more.  Why I’d have to eat 100 lbs. a day in …order… to …never mind, that can’t be right. No, I must have the math wrong, but my point should be well taken anyway.

Actually, the reason Meadow Mice need to eat so much is because plant fibers are notoriously hard to break down. One time through the digestive system isn’t enough to derive all the nutrients. Because of this, voles count themselves as members of the coprophage society. This means they eat their own feces and run them through again! When you think of it, this is also a great way to save on space within their living quarters – the bathroom and dining room are the same room.

Concern over people wearing sandals in late winter is obviously a minor issue when compared to things like this.

March 7, 2010

Burling for Dollars

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:44 pm

Do you know how hard it is to write a blog about a Hickory Burl without mentioning Burl Ives? It is near, no make that – it is impossible, because you can see that I just did it. Indeed, Mr. Ives made his living as a talented performer with a home-grown persona, but he has nothing to do with those cancerous growths found on trees. He was a round fellow whose shape somewhat resembled that of a typical tree burl, but that’s about it. It’s just a word association thing. Burl: Ives – American actor and singer who….blah, blah. No, you need to get past the guy behind the snowman on the “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” Television special and start thinking “tree” when the word burl pops up.

Let me show you what a tree burl looks like (see photo above). I found this example growing on a Pignut Hickory about 15 feet up on the trunk. The thing was oval shaped and about three feet by three and a half in dimension. I had to crane my neck to get a good look at it. Fortunately, the ground around the base of the tree was still covered with a heavy layer of snow, or else I would have been forced to note the poison ivy that covers the floor of this woodlot. This would have forced me to put the words “burl” and “ivy” in the same sentence and that would have ended this blog before it began. My mind would have wandered into a rendition of “Silver and Gold.” As it is, I am able to continue this discussion by saying that burls are more typically found on oak, ash, maple, walnuts, and the like, so this example was slightly unique in terms of species.

To describe a burl as a cancerous growth is to miss the point. Trees having this kind of woody mass are normally healthy in all other regards, so it doesn’t involve an agent which spreads into the rest of the trunk or branches. The growth is basically a benign wart, in other words. As a matter of fact, scientists are not really sure what actually causes burls to grow. Some believe injuries, insects, or perhaps fungi (or a not-so-fun guys), cause the tree to react much in the same way as a gall is formed. Others point to circumstantial evidence that genetics are involved – noting clusters of burl trees within the seed range of a large parent tree.

It is known that burl growth begins when a twig bud fails to develop normally. For some reason burl- bound buds forget how to form limb tissue and start producing hog-wild woody tissue. You could say that the growth is cancerous in nature without actually being cancerous. Burls are stems that continue to grow but do not elongate (you can thank Dr. Richard Barrans Jr. for that answer, by the way). The woody structure of a burl consists of a gnarly grain and contorted growth rings that are very different from the normal ring growth of the tree. Externally this pattern is expressed by a contorted version of the tree bark. You’ll note the unusual texture of this hickory burl when compared to the normal shaggy bark of the tree (see below).  It looks like a lump of solidified cottage cheese or one of my early attempts at making a snickerdoodle cookie.

Burls, including hickory burls, are eagerly sought by woodworkers because of their unusual figuring. Since colonial times, bowls have been made out of these unique growths and artfully turned burl bowls are still being made by regional artists. Some examples can command hundreds of dollars on the craft market. Larger burls can be thinly sliced to produce an attractively marbled, and equally valuable, veneer for furniture making.

This hickory burl is safe from the bowl-maker because it grows on protected land and because it already has a hole in it. A view of the far side of this growth (see here) reveals a neat entrance hole punching through it. This opening may have started out as a woodpecker hole, but it probably serves as a Red Squirrel den for the time being. Over the years, the fashionable entrance hole has been maintained by constant chewing.  Having a distinctive burlwood door frame must make this place the envy of the woodlot.

March 4, 2010

The View From on High

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:00 pm

For the third time in so many years, I had the opportunity to hitch a helicopter ride as part of an aerial survey of the lower Huron-Clinton Metroparks. We were looking for deer and, without getting into any particulars, we found ‘em.  But we saw lots of other things along the way and these other things are probably more noteworthy as subject fillers for this blog. There was a hefty coyote, a graceful Red Fox, and a dozens of terrified Fox Squirrels, for starters. The coyote was on the move and ducked into shelter long before I could take a photo of it. The fox provided us with only a passing glance and the squirrels, well, the squirrels showed an unusually high amount of anxiety – especially given that our copter was several hundred feet over their heads.  Yet, their bounding forms could be seen at nearly every turn in every woodlot as if we were roaring through the very trees themselves. Only the two flocks of Wild Turkeys that we spooked at Lower Huron Metropark matched the fleeing terror of the squirrels.

I was especially interested in the high view over Lake Erie Metropark because it is “my” park (actually, I am only part owner behind a whole slew of deer and nervous squirrels). As if on cue, a soaring Cooper’s hawk crossed before us just as we entered the park’s air space. The bird was at our level, or more properly, we were at her’s. She calmly descended to the earth world and angled down to perch on a large cottonwood tree 200 feet below.

Dozens of Great Blue Herons flushed from their willow perches close to the hawk’s landing site at the north end of the one of the park lagoons (see above).  From above, these large birds certainly earn their name. Their slatey gray-blue backs show up well against the snow covered ice below.   I counted about fifteen individuals in this flock. These gangly fish-eaters are a regular part of the winter bird population here along the shoreline as long as there is open water available.  Several Bald Eagles surveyed the open shoreline waters as well (see here). These birds, apparently keen on maintaining their dignity, did not flush when the copter passed overhead. On this day they simply glanced up before lowering their gaze back to the water surface. I would guess that they were looking for panicky squirrels attempting to make the swim for Canada, but that would only be a guess on my part.

I would be remiss not to at least mention a few deer related sightings. Our flight occurred at mid-morning, and most of the deer were bedded down in heavy cover.  On many occasions the creatures stuck tight to their forms as we made our initial pass and then jumped to their feet as we circled back around (see below the pair bouncing up onto their feet). Few of them actually looked up – the rotor noise alone was enough to prompt them into action. In the absence of the actual deer themselves, there was always plenty of deer evidence on the landscape.  Sleeping forms (see here the 5-6 dark oval-shaped patches in the thicket) and feeding patches (see here) were everywhere.

Although deer tracks were the most abundant non-human sign, plenty of other animal tracks were in evidence. One view (shown below and here) revealed an interesting set of prints on the shelf ice. A week’s worth of coyote tracks can be seen as linear traces in the snow along with the regular jumping track of a non-panicked Fox Squirrel near the cat-tail edge.  The rambling track originating from the lower left is that of a Canada Goose. You can see where the honker ambled up to a point, turned sharply to the right, and then launched into a take-off run. The paired tracks get farther and farther apart until disappearing altogether as the bird achieved flight.

Perhaps the most startling sight on this particular flight were the multiple beds of Phragmites reed in the park.  In places, these reed patches stretched like dirty brown shag carpeting over some of the lagoons. Ten years ago these same lagoons were vast cat-tail marshes, but they have been replaced by these nasty invaders. Reed beds are bad enough when viewed at ground level, but from above their sheer density is dishearteningly apparent. The photo (see below) shows a solid patch that was probably 5 acres in extent. Only the occasional deer path weaving through the mat of dead vegetation allowed any opportunity to judge some scale.

By far the most intriguing sight was a nice overhead look at one of our local Great-horned Owl nests (see below and here). Her platform is an old Red-tailed Hawk located on a lofty Bur oak tree located about mid-park.  Believe it or not, this bird has been dutifully sitting on her eggs since the end of January. This means that she has sheltered her charges through all that this past February has thrown at her. It takes about 33 days to incubate the eggs and it is very likely that the first chick had already hatched beneath her, but she was not about to reveal any of her secrets. This bird gave us the stink eye as we hovered past.

I passed over an old friend of mine as we concluded the survey and headed north from the owl nest.   A giant Cottonwood, once the sole master of former pastureland, poked its familiar form above the tree-tops (see beginning photo). This tree, decrepit and shedding when viewed a ground level, looked rather noble from on high. Beyond it, a wash of rouge branches marked a patch of Red Maple trees. These trees were in the process of swelling their buds with flowing sap and preparing to present the season’s first crop of flowers. Though our flight was a winter event it ended on an early spring note.

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