Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 29, 2010

Gnatcatcher at the Gnest

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:58 pm

This has been a terrific personal year for finding bird nests. I’ll go several years at a stretch without finding even one (I am, of course, not counting robin nests) but this season I’ve been luckier than normal. The Phoebe and Cooper’s Hawk (see here the female on the nest as of this morning) were great finds, along with at least three Red-winged Blackbird nests. I can now add Gnatcatchers to that list.  I didn’t originally find this particular one, however. It was located by a friend who described the location to a tee.  In the case of a gnatcatcher nest, finding even a well described nestspot can be a challenge. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have found it on my own, but find – or re-find it-  I did.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are distinctive little birds if not entirely forthcoming. They are better known by their hissing little call than by their appearance. These tiny slinking birds tend to stay high up in the branches and force one to break a few neck vertebrae while searching for them. True to their description they are indeed blue gray. They have overly long tails and long insect eating bills (see above).  Yes, they do eat gnats, although gflies, gmoths, and gcaterpillers are also consumed.

Although warbler-like, they are actually grouped among the so-called Old World Warblers and thus the non-warbler name.  They do pale in comparison with our bright assemblage of New World Warblers, but there’s something about that silent “G” in the name that gives them some kind of distinction.  It puts them in the club with the likes of other silent starters like Gnomes and Pfaltzgraff .  I wonder if Gnomes use  Pfaltzgraff China? I really don’t Gknow.

The whole point of this discussion, however, is to introduce you to that wonderful creation of nature called the Gnatcatcher nest. Probably the best way to describe this structure is that it looks like a giant hummingbird nest. The word “giant” (spelled Gniat by gnomes and transposing keyboardists) is relative. The Ruby-throated hummingbird makes a nest that is about the diameter of a Kennedy half dollar, while the gnatcatchers nest is twice that size. The resemblance comes from the heavy use of lichens and spider webs by both species for nest construction.

Gnatcatchers appear to glue their nest directly to a branch rather than use a crotch to support it. They often employ spider webs to adhere the thing and then build up the walls with well-place lichens plucked from nearby trees (see earlier “construction shot” here). The interior of the finished structure consists of  fine grasses and silky down.  When completed, the nest looks more like a knot than a gnest (see completed nest below).

I watched the pair put the finishing touches on their knot (or is it gnot?) nest. Both male and female were engaged in the process. Each brought in a piece, placed it, and then nestled it in with a snug body wiggle (see the windy day footage here).

The only bad thing about finding a bird nest like this one is that you instantly begin to take some emotional ownership of it. You are compelled to watch the progress of the brood as if you are mother hen and worry about it like a Jewish Mother-in-Law. In this case, the worry factor has already kicked in. I do not doubt the persistence and vitality of the little artisans, but there is a cloud in their future. Cowbirds have been hanging around the location for many days now. These birds are nest parasites that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Their young eventually push out the native chicks and grow fat on the work of the unsuspecting adoptive parents. The Gnatcatchers have yet to start laying their eggs, so the cowbirds can’t do a thing as of yet.

I gknow there is gnothing I can do about it now except fret and look for more nests to worry about – and spend some more time admiring the Gnice construction work on this one.

April 26, 2010

Day & Night on Dollar Lake

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:58 pm

If you are a regular reader of Naturespeak, you might recall that my wife and I bought a tiny cottage late last year on the shores of a tiny lake called Dollar Lake. I’ve alluded to it a few times and probably will again, since the place is located smack dab in the middle of some pretty scenic northern Michigan country. The lake is a glorified (some would say not even glorified) pond but it is a wild little place that offers some little wild moments.

By day, the late April appearance of the lake is of glass smooth waters lightly pockmarked with emerging water lilies. About half of the arrow shaped pads have reached the floating stage and the others are making a bid for the surface. Round green flower buds, each on their own stalk, promise a future flowering display (see above). New green cat-tail blades are thrusting up through last year’s stalks as well. A lone muskrat occasionally stops by “our” end of the lake to feed on the fresh greens – his floating feeding platform placed close to the end of “my” dock.

Above the muskrat’s watery domain, a pair of red-wing blackbirds was setting up shop. The busy female (see below) worked on their nest all weekend and found time to protest my presence each time she delivered a new shred of cat-tail leaf to her developing nest. The male stood guard from an overhanging willow but, seeing that I was hardly a threat, maintained his focus more on rival male red-wings than the dowdy human observer seen on yonder platform.

Nearly hidden under the shade of a shoreline grove of balsam firs, a bright Marsh Marigold did its best to proclaim the virtues of the season (see here).  It appears to be the only one of its kind on this particular section of shore. It therefore was compelled to shout for attention. This is a petal-less flower, believe it or not – those buttercup “petals” are actually sepals. This trivial botanical point hardly matters because when one looks at this flower one is drawn into its “open golden eyes” (as Shakespeare put it). Whether those eyes be of petal or sepal kind is totally irrelevant. Unfortunately, this gem is often called a Cowslip which defies explanation. In Shakespeare’s Old English time this senseless name was actually divided into the words “Cows Lip.” So, do those yellow lips moo for attention as well? One doth not give a rip, does doth!

One thing I doth did give a rip about were the Wood Ducks that cruised the lake. There was a bachelor flock of about 6-8 of these multi-colored ducks on the lake. Early Saturday morning I noticed that this shy flock of male fowl had tentatively made their way up into the grass of my cottage yard. Several of them also perched on the dock post (see above and here) and preened in the early light. They were a skittish lot, however, and were off in an instant as soon as they detected life from the porch. I shot the above photo through my front window but I considered it a meager attempt. I decided to rig up my new trail cam in order to capture them remotely the following morning.

I had yet to set my camera up, so I spent the darkening hours getting the thing ready.  The first few tests shots from this unit were less than inspiring (see here a shot of my face finding out where the shutter button was and a great shot of my feet). My first night was a bust. By the following evening, I was able to strap the thing into place and point the lens directly at the spot where I thought the Woodies would wander up from the lake in the dim light of the following morning. Unbeknownst to me, the camera caught me walking away in the evening light – the ghost-like man who had set up the perfect Wood Duck trap (see beginning photo). The only other sound on that silent eve was the close chirping of a half dozen Spring Peepers and the distant “peenting” of a single courting Woodcock.

I didn’t see the ducks in the yard on the following morning, but that was no matter. It had been a rainy wet night and the morning was very dim indeed. Perhaps they had ventured in while I was still asleep. That is, after all, the purpose of a trail cam. Opening up the camera and examining the photo memory chip, I unfortunately found no wood duck portraits within. There was, however, a wee hour “capture.”

At 3 am, a raccoon wandered past the spot and mugged for the camera (see above). This wasn’t exactly the exotic type of picture I was hoping for, but it was a fascinating glimpse into the nightlife of Dollar Lake. It appears that the daytime world of my little lake presented only half the picture. The other half was a tantalizing glimpse of a raccoon’s rear disappearing into the darkness.

April 22, 2010

Where Do Coco Puffs Come From?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:16 pm

There have long been a questions hanging out there that I felt needed some answering. No one has dared to ask these questions out loud, but they are important none-the-less. It was only through great restraint that I avoided bringing up the topics that would generate answers to these non-questions – ugly, tuberous answers covered with hairy warts. These are the type of inquiries that should be whispered only to one’s self in the middle of the night. I long yielded to the force of “decency” and let them lie like a still flat rabbit on long lonely road, but no more.

There are many, but I’ll stick to four for the moment. They are: 1) What if Beavers had chainsaws?, 2) Where do Coco-Puffs come from?, 3)Where do Gooseberries come from?, and 4) Is there anything uglier than a Sucker fish? Yes, I know you are shocked to hear these laid out in such a frank manner in the harsh light of day, but to everything there is a season. It’s now truth season, so here goes.

What if Beavers had chainsaws?

Beavers, as everyone knows, are tree cutters. They are equipped with powerful jaw muscles and incredible self-sharpening chisel teeth. They can gnaw their way through medium sized trees in a single night and, given a couple of nights, they can make their way through large trees (see here). They don’t eat wood, but eat the bark instead. How much wood could a beaver chuck if a beaver was a chuck? Well that is another question and we don’t have time for that one. One mystery at a time, grasshopper.

Everyone loves beavers and cherishes their presence. Tiny children can draw pictures of them and businessmen quote phrases about being as busy as a beaver and damming all who show sloth tendencies. All ignore their dark dangerous side, however.  Beavers operate under the cover of darkness for a good reason. At this very moment some of these giant rodents are in training to break free of their physical limitations. Only under the cover of night can they undergo tool training. Lock up your chainsaws and crosscuts. As soon as they develop a thumb they will be unstoppable. Look below and you’ll see what I mean. This is what would happen if beavers had chainsaws!

Where do Coco-Puffs come from?

If you are like me, you probably grew up thinking that Coco-Puff cereal comes from some magical place.   Sure, you acknowledged that the boxes grew on trees, but those tasty little puffs of goodness were certainly laid one at a time from tiny metallic chocolate chickens along a conveyor belt. The General Mills Company would have you believe otherwise. “They are essentially Trix orbs with chocolate flavoring,” they will tell you and then name the actual factories where they are produced. They will then go on to inform you that the name “Coco-Puffs” is not hyphenated and is actually spelled “Cocoa Puffs.” Nonsense, they are cuckoo.

No, the real shocker in this whole sordid affair is that – no matter how you spell it – this cereal is a natural product which actually comes from the earth. Look at the beginning photo and you can see these Coc….er, coac….whatever, these dark Trix, issuing from the earth in my back yard! Yes, this cereal is made by Devil Crayfish which live underground!! They make their product out of little mud balls!!!  They are, no doubt un-paid for their labors!!!! (nor am I paid for the use of exclamation marks!!!!!). Lest you doubt my conclusions, look below where I tasted some of these crayfish products. Look here to see the chocolaty milk that remained in the bowl. Apart from the slightly raw taste, these were indeed Coco-Puffs.  Now you know.

Where do Gooseberries come from?

You know, I am starting to wear down. I’ve only answered two questions and find that my writing space and my energy is getting low. Let me be frank on this third question in order to save time. Gooseberries do not come from Geese. Geese make green sausages and occasionally lay large Coco Puffs. Gooseberries come from Bumblebees. When these early flowering plants bloom in the spring, the only pollinators out there are Bumblebees. The flowers (see here) are unremarkable but are like honey to a bee for the Bumbles (see below). In seeking the nectar, these native insects pollinate the flower and are responsible for development of the fruit. What is a Gooseberry you ask? Well, again, I need to remind you that is an additional question which is out of the sphere of this discussion. I am sorry for that, but there will be another time.

Is there anything uglier than a Sucker fish?

Finally, we’ve come to the last question and end of our little talk – for now. Most of what I have already revealed will no doubt generate more deep soul-searching and trigger a relapse back to calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. To this last question, therefore, I will let you come to your own conclusion but I would definitely answer “no.” Look at the detail picture of the White Sucker below. I rest my case.

April 20, 2010

Behold the Unfurling

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:31 pm

Like a new flag fresh from the package or an umbrella freed from its restraint, the opening of a bud or fresh leaf is poetry in motion. While flags and umbrellas (well, most umbrellas anyway) can be returned to their compact state, buds and leaves cannot. Theirs is a slow motion unfurling which, as odd as it sounds, goes very quickly. Much of the new bud explosion is already well past as I write these words – thanks to a few days of near summer-like weather. Just because this state is fleeting, however, doesn’t mean we can’t pause to appreciate it. Cameras can rewind time, you know.

Late last week I ventured out into one of our local woodlots seeking absolutely nothing. In the back of my head I had a laundry list (which included a tree frog, a ball of garter snakes, and a pot of gold unguarded by a leprechaun) but sometimes it’s better to just “let come what comes.”  On this day I found myself in the midst of the silent plant unfurling. My pot ‘o gold was green.

The Honeysuckle, Black Cherry, and Spring Beauties were already open. The Wild Oats were already sown (see above) and the Trout Lilies were already schooling. Above all this silent noise the Shagbark Hickories were just bursting forth (see beginning photo and here). Perhaps one of the most unappreciated “flowers” of spring, the huge buds of this upland tree are truly a sight to behold. Large reddish bracts on the terminal buds peel back like petals in order to allow the perfect new leaf clusters to push up and out. Because this unwrapping normally takes place high up in the woodland canopy it is easy to ignore. Fortunately a low hanging branch brought the sight down to my eye level on the ground – I being a mere leprechaun in a field of giants.

Lower down, at the level where I became the giant, the Mayapples were pushing up (see above). The non-flowering individuals only un-wrap one umbrella shaped leaf but the flowering ones, like the one shown here, possess two leaves with a large waxy bud in the center. The flower will turn into a dangling green apple by the end of May, but I still can’t figure out why these things are called Mayapples.  I mean, shouldn’t they be called….ooooh, wait a minute I get it. How clever.

Immediately to the left of the Mayapple (wow, what a name) was an unfurling Trillium. Everything about this plant is in threes – leaves, sepals, and petals. I needn’t tell you why these perennial forest wildflowers aren’t called dualiums or quintillums. At this early stage in the growing game you could only see the triumvirate set of leaves as the stem straightened its posture.

Already erect and boldly pointing skyward, a bursting Jack in the Pulpit showed some color.  As mature flowers these woodland preachers are basically green on green. When new, everything is intensified. The red stripes on the flower hood are well defined and the tubular stem sheath exhibits a speckled décor (see above and  here). There are two flowers in this cluster and I suspect they both will turn out to be jacks (male flowers). The Jills (females) are much larger and their fresh growth looks much fleshier – if such a word is appropriate to describe a female preacher.

I digitally captured all of these plants last week and intended to post this entry right away. The Phoebe nest situation trumped it and it had to wait. All of these plants are in full form by now and no doubt well into maturity. Their unfurling days are over. As a matter of fact, I noticed that the pin oaks were already leafing out today (see below). I’d say the leaflets were about squirrel ear size which means it’ll soon be corn planting time and then Labor Day (Yes, I meant to say “Labor” and not “Memorial” Day). It just goes to show you that when you blink during the springtime it triggers the fast forward button. It’s a good thing we can at least pretend to have a rewind button.

April 17, 2010

Phoebe Fidelity

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:59 pm

It would be wrong to assume that the Phoebe bird got its name from the Greek goddess of brightness, but it would be logical. Phoebe, the Greek, was the daughter of Gaea the primal goddess of the earth (“the personification of the earth” as one source put it) and Phoebe, the bird, employs the riches of that very earth for building. Phoebes construct their nests out of mud, fresh moss, strips of fine grass, and hair. You can’t get much earthier than that. But, the reality is that the birds got their name based on a direct translation of their call which is a wheezy “phee-bee.” In other words, they are what they say they are. We merely provided the logical spelling (although the goddess is more commonly called Phoibe). It’s a good thing they don’t say “Hay-des” or “Bee-eelzhe-bub.”

I recently discovered a pair of these sprightly little flycatchers setting up shop under a boardwalk. The female was busily delivering fine strands of grass to add to her nest (see beginning photo). The male took no part in this activity. True to form, they had selected a spot adjacent to the water and concealed under the protective cover of a ledge as a site for their earthy nest. Also true to form, this pair exhibited true Grecian fidelity by returning to the same exact nesting location year after year. There were several old nests under the walk and the current one (see below) could have been an add-on to one of their older structures.

Now, I can’t be absolutely sure that these birds were the very same that built the earlier nests but I don’t need to consult the oracle at Delphi in order to get proof. That’s just what these little guys typically do. After spending the winter around the Gulf States and Mexico, they make their way back to the same exact location with pinpoint accuracy year after year. Part of this fidelity stems from the fact that proper nest sites are few and far between, so it behooves these birds to stick to known locations. Behoove, by the way, is from the Olde English Behooven and has nothing to do with Greek.

One of the first naturalists to discover this fact – the nest site fidelity thing, not the origin of the word behoove thing- was John James Audubon. Way back in 1804 Mr. Audubon found a pair of Phoebes nesting at the mouth of a cave located on his father’s property in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. He wanted to keep track of his birds and carefully tied yarn around the nestling’s legs to act as a band. The birds consistently plucked these things off, but eventually a set of metallic thread bands stayed put. Audubon was delighted when, the following spring, he found that two of the banded birds returned to Mill Grove. Not only was this the first recorded incidence of bird banding in North America but it was also the first hint of Phoebe nest site fidelity. In Audubon’s case, the offspring were carrying on the family tradition.

One name that you will not often hear associated with the Phoebe is the “Big-headed bird,” but it too is a suitable designation. Take another look at the female bird (above and here) and you’ll see what I mean. The apparent size of the head, when compared to the rest of the body, is huge. Most of this impression is gained from the fact that the bird has a crest, but as an identifying feature it is a good trait. In fact, given this observation, one might easily assume that this little gal thinks highly of herself and is a bit of a prima donna goddess. That would be wrong, of course, because this is only a small gray mortal that says “Wee-be Phee-bees.”

April 14, 2010

Homemaking: Cooper’s Style

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:53 pm

‘Tis the heart of the season for nesting birds. Big ones, little ones, and more than a few middle sized ones are now engaged in home-building and clutch rearing. Robins, Starlings, and House finches go about their nest chores within easy eye-shot. It is, in fact, near impossible not to see these familiar fowl flitting back and forth with a mouthfuls of grass, mud, or twigs. Most birds are secretive about such proceedings or make it a point to conduct their business in fairly secluded locations. Cooper’s Hawks stick to the latter plan, but not the former. They are not commonly seen as nesting pairs because they are forest hawks who build up in the top branch layer, but because of their talkative nature they make a habit of announcing their plans to the world. In other words, when these raptors are in a domestic mood they let everyone know.

A pair of vociferous Cooper’s Hawks have taken up nesting atop a Hawthorn tree at Lake Erie Metropark. The location is fairly low as hawk nests go – about 25 feet or so – but well concealed in maze of thorny branches. Soon the location will be completely hidden by emerging leaves. I found the nest only because the female caught my attention and then led me right to it.  As you can see (below) the nest is very hard to see even when you do “see” it. A crow-sized platform of pencil-sized sticks and small branches, the tangled structure blends in perfectly when placed in a tangle.

Normally quiet birds, these large accipiters do a lot of squawking around breeding time. The best way to describe the “keeping in contact call” is that it sounds like a big rubber dog toy. I say “big” because the tone is more guttural and loud than squeaky – a Great Dane toy, perhaps. “Eee-n  Eee-n” is the best I can do to describe the mewing pattern. Listen to this call (here) and you’ll hear what I heard on the first day. You’ll also get a brief glimpse of her leaving the nest in this video/sound track.

She’s been performing this call consistently over the past week. A visitor stopped by the museum and attempted to describe a bird call he was hearing the other day. “It sounded like someone was pulling on a Toro snowblower that wasn’t starting,” he said.  Unfortunately, his visual sent me off in another direction and it wasn’t until he told me where the sound was coming from that I finally was able to key him in on the Cooper’s hawk. I played my recorded call and he said “that’s it!”  A Toro???

The second call is a much more familiar Cooper’s vocal. It consists of a rapid fire “cak cak cak cak” (you know, like rapidly beating on a rubber toy or a toy toro snowblower).Listen to this call (here) and it’s likely you won’t forget it.

Though I heard the male a few times, I’ve yet to spot him. All my eye time has been on the busy female. It is likely that she is already mated (Cooper’s apparently mate hundreds of times!) and was in the mid-stage of nest construction when I first came upon her. The slightly unusual thing about this gal is that she was a subadult bird still garbed in her 2nd year brown outfit (see below and here). Cooper’s Hawks don’t attain their full plumage until their third year. At that point they will have slatey gray backs, ruby red eyes, and rusty brown breasts. Our female retains her yellowish eye and brown back. Her white breast was still covered with vertical brown paint drips.

Although it’s not unheard of for 2nd year Coopers to breed, it is fairly rare. Oddly enough, it is usually the female that is the young chick of the pair when it does happen. It is very rare for a subadult male to engage in breeding and even rarer for both members of a pair to be subadults. I’m assuming our female’s mate is an adult bird, but I can’t tell from his call alone. His voice wasn’t cracking, so that might be a sign of maturity! You can actually hear his distant call 38 seconds into the first call video track if you want to give it another listen. She responds at 43 seconds and quickly leaves the nest as if to say “yes, I’m still working dear. I could use a little help.”

The female has been working diligently on her task. I watched her repeatedly bounce through the tree-tops and grab small twigs with her powerful beak. She’d try a few before finding one that snapped off. Her beak is made for ripping apart little birds – not for playing pick up sticks. Once a twig was secured, she’d immediately fly to the nest and position it before repeating the whole procedure.

I suspect, if everything goes well, she’ll be laying her eggs within the week.  Subadult females tend to lay their eggs later than adult females and they pop out fewer eggs when they do lay, but they certainly don’t lack the energy when it comes to nest-building and gabbing.

April 11, 2010

Carpet Sharks in the Bathroom

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:05 pm

There are some critters that couldn’t care less about the advent of spring. For those select few, the ups and downs of the outside thermometer mean nothing as long as the inside thermostat is set at a tropically consistent 70 degree F. No, I am not talking about teenagers or cats, I am talking about those carbohydrate munching creatures variously called carpet sharks, paramites, or bristletails but more commonly called silverfish. These insects are a part of the inner fauna of nearly every home, yet they are little seen and never acknowledged. I was forced to acknowledge a few when I flipped on the bathroom light on the other day.

There, exposed to the blinding light, a few silverfish circled about randomly on the tile floor before dashing for cover. My eyes had barely adjusted to the light before I sprang into action. One silvery form, slower than the rest, was obliged to pay the price for his fellow fish and die for the cause. I didn’t squash it -that would be non-scientific and stain generating -but instead I corralled it with a plastic cup and popped it into the freezer. I wanted a closer look at one of these unique little co-habitants. Dead silverfish are easier to study than live ones.

If you are a member of the Silverfish Preservation Guild, by the way, I ask that you do not write me and complain about this act. I also would ask that you seek help while you still can!  Actually I have the deepest respect for silverfish. If I were a hat wearing man, I’d tip my chapeau and if I were a drinking man, I’d raise my glass to the lowly Lepisma saccharina as among the most successful creatures on earth. As it is, I am a twinkie eating man who doesn’t know what kind of acknowledgment to perform with this product. You don’t raise a twinkie, or tip it for that matter, but I guess you could pinch it a few times.

The pictures I bring you are of this dead little silverfish. Unfortunately, this one was not the best representative of his kind.  Both antennae, which normally are quite long, are busted and all of the tail bristles were cut off. This fellow was a stubbytail rather than a bristletail (there are normally three long bristles sticking out of the posterior end). The lack of “tail “probably explains why he was so slow out of the gate. To his credit, and another pinch of the Twinkie, he does display the silvery scales and almond shape that earn the common name of the tribe.

Admit it, he’s kinda cute isn’t he (see above and detail here). The entire body is covered with oval scales – making the sleek fish-like shape even sleeker looking. Since the scales detach so easily, it is likely that these are defensive paraphernalia meant to leave a predator with a mouthful of scaly dust. A pair of tiny compound eyes and six stout little legs are classic insect characteristics, however, a complete lack of wings or an easily discernible head-thorax-abdomen combo put silverfish into the “primitive” category. Keep in mind that primitive doesn’t mean backward or unsuccessful. They are found all over the planet.

Silverfish are chewing bugs that feast on carbohydrates such as starch and sugar. In the home, this can mean paper, glue, book bindings, or all that extra dandruff and hair you leave lying around. As much as I hate to admit it, Twinkies are fair silverfish food as well.

None of these eating habits endear them to us, but they don’t care. You could eliminate all the silverfish in your house by turning your furnace off in the winter and tearing out all your bathrooms and sinks (they are attracted to such moist places). You’d also have to move north, stop reading books, eating Twinkies, and growing hair in order to rid your home of carpet sharks. In short, you’d have to be a hairless moron living in an igloo in order to beat these bugs.

Chances are, your crack at this deprived state of living would be very short and you’d have to give it up before a month was over.  You’d move back into your home thinking that at least your prolonged absence had driven the hidden pests over to the neighbor’s ranch house. Unfortunately, the silverfish will wait you out. They can go without food for over a year. Besides, that one Twinkie you accidentally left way back under the stove will last over 25 years – enough to feed thousands of Silverfish generations. Silverfish: 1  Humans: 0.

April 8, 2010

Sand Bees on a Stunted Slope

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:09 pm

There is a little patch of ground north of Grand Rapids which has always held a fascination for me. The place is now confined within an official park but back “in the day” it was a wild piece of untamed real estate ripe for exploring. Why, I remember camping there as a lad and…well, never mind, I won’t dwell on memories except to recall that I once spent the coldest night of my life in one of the thinnest of all sleeping bags in that place. There are now trails, signs, and a parking lot within the 45 acre preserve of Provin Trails Park but the central part, a desolate open sand slope, has changed little over the 40 some years I have known it.

I guess you’d call this part a black oak barren – a place scarred by forest fires back in the days of big pine. Though much of the surrounding area has been reclaimed by acres of planted pine plantations and the remainder retains some vestige of the earlier white pine forest, this spot has been sterilized to the point where little can grow on it. Or, more properly, anything that does grow there stays little.

Here large patches of open sand are weakly colonized by clusters of stunted black oak trees (see here). These bonsai oaks retain the general shape of their larger brethren in the forest below but are only 1/10 their height and a bit hunched in appearance. They grow but never seem to accomplish anything beyond staying alive yet they have a dignity about them that only age can bring (something I say to myself every time I look in the mirror). I’m not sure how old these trees are, but I’d guess that many of them are well over the century plus mark. I broke off a dead side branch and later read the growth ring evidence. This section was over 35 years old yet it was only one inch in diameter. The rings were so closely spaced that they were difficult to read.

Given the lack of nutrients and poor water retention in the soil it’s no wonder these trees are struggling to make do. These sands also get very hot under the mid-day summer sun and tend to cook everything around them. One of the few organisms that can put up with this regimen are those mini-puffballs called sand stars (see below).

When I walked this stretch the other day, as a giant among small trees, an overnight rain fall had pock-marked the sand and erased all signs of life previous to daybreak. A crisp set of lone possum tracks wove across the expanse through several newly made Sand Bee towers.  These towers immediately attracted attention not only because they poked above the surface but because the makers were at home (see below). Each entrance was constructed at a slight angle with a landing, so to speak, and the bees were sitting on their porches to soak up the morning sun.

As I approached, they ducked back into their retreats momentarily before popping their fuzzy little heads back up (see below and here). They were like Prairie Dogs on a miniature scale. I can’t say with any certainty what species they were, but from general appearance (and without looking at their genitalia, I might add) they looked to be Digger Bees of the genus Andrena. Since there are around 500 North American species in this genus to pick from, you can see why I am more than happy to just call them plain Sand Bees. Since females do the tunnel construction, I can also feel confident in referring to them as she-bee sand bees.

In many ways, these little she-bees represent the spirit of the barrens. They seek out such places to dig their brood tunnels and nurture life where it is not wanted. They are solitary bees but since others are also attracted to the same open sand habitat, they’ll cluster into loose colonies. Though neighbors, they don’t borrow sugar or engage in gossip with their fellow diggers.  They dig, mate, and prepare ye the way for new-bees.

Each burrow extends straight down into the sand about 6-7 inches and branches out into a dozen or so individual cells. Each cell is eventually supplied with a ball of pollen – aka bee bread – before an egg is laid upon it and the place is sealed up. The pollen comes from flowering willow catkins down in the nearby valley. This is where the females meet the he-bees, by the way.

By the time the summer sun begins to bake the sand, the adult insects are bee-gone and the new-bees are comfortably munching away on their pollen snack cakes while deep in the sandy soil. The bonsai black oaks will have sprouted tough green leaves by then and girding their loins to endure yet another year – unaware that little earth bees are growing fat beneath their scanty shade.

April 5, 2010

The Fruits of Song

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:05 pm

A short while ago, I mentioned my once-a-spring visit to a certain roadside ditch to witness the Chorus Frog “show.”  As usual, it turned out to be quite a demonstration of amphibious lust and loquaciousness and I was not disappointed. In fact, the addition of Wood Frog activity to the fray made it all that much more interesting. I felt like I was missing a part of the picture, however. All that “Creeking” and “Clucking” was geared to reproduction and I had yet to see any of the fruits of that singing – aka egg masses. This was primarily because of my timing. So, I decided to make my once-a-spring endeavor into a twice-a-spring thing and return to the dance floor at mid-dance.

Frog eggs vary in appearance depending on species. The individual eggs are always enclosed in clear gelatin packages but they can be arranged into big globs, small clusters, or even clusters of globs. Toads lay their eggs in long strings which look like old fashioned dime store dot candies. Some of these frog egg clusters are adhered to sticks and submerged grass stems while others are allowed to float at the surface. Putting the right egg to the right frog is a matter of knowing the right checklist, although it can be difficult. When salamanders are in the neighborhood, things can be very mixed up indeed. In the case of my ditch, the challenge wasn’t too great because only Chorus and Wood Frogs hang out there and their egg masses are quite different from one another.

Locating the Wood Frog eggs proved to be a simple task. These creatures tend to lay their egg masses into communal nurseries. Generally when you find one cluster you’ll find many. There were two such nursery clusters in the deepest part of the ditch. The larger aggregation, consisting of about 18-20 clusters, was “guarded” by a female wood frog who hovered over the spot like a mother hen (see beginning photo and above). In truth, there is no egg defense or brooding going on, but it was almost as if she were admiring her creation. If you look closely you’ll see that she is proudly pointing to the third bunch from the left (don’t look too closely, now). You don’t have to look that hard to notice that a few of the clusters are actually floating at the surface. Eventually all of them will do so.

According to the literature, there is an average of 1,000 eggs in per Wood Frog egg cluster but these clusters appeared to be a bit shy of the average.  The individual eggs are about ½ inch in diameter- including a clear envelope and a tiny black and white embryo. They adhere to each other without the benefit of an additional gelatin coating holding them together. When first laid, the round egg mass is about the size of a ping pong ball but it soon expands to soft ball size as water is absorbed.  I gently cradled one of the masses in my palm to get a better view (see below). As you can see this particular clutch was about ready to hatch. It only takes about 10 days to emerge when the weather is warm and I’ll bet this bunch was on its ninth and 3/4 day. Some of the tiny tadpoles were already free of their egg capsule.

Finding one of the Chorus Frog egg clusters proved to be much more of a challenge. Though they perform in communal singing groups, Chorus Frogs prefer to lay their eggs in small solitary clusters stuck onto submerged grass stems. A female (see here) will lay dozens of separate clusters in dozens of separate places. It took a few minutes of re-focusing before I spotted my first cluster (see below).

These delicate masses only contained around 75-100 seed-like eggs apiece and were cylindrical in shape. They probably measured about 1 by 3 inches but, admittedly, measuring a glob of jelly is a difficult task. When placed in the palm, the masses become shapeless although the embryos became clearly outlined within (see here). Judging by the advanced state of the tadpoles in the one cluster I was able to pull within reach, they too were about 7 or 8 days along.

I elected to take one of the clusters home in a take-out bag (see below) and watch their further development. A few of the tadpoles started hatching out later that day and the whole brood was out by the following afternoon. I was now the proud father and choir director for a clutch of very tiny Chorus Frog tadpoles. I’ll send baby pictures as soon as they are big enough to smile.

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