Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 30, 2010

Mayapple of Your Eye

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:54 pm

Whatever you do, don’t celebrate the end of May with a Mayapple. You’d think that eating the fruit of something called a May-apple would be an appropriate – even a righteous -thing to do. But, if you live in the Great Lakes region, that would be a very bad idea. In fact, it just might be a fatal idea unless you are willing to put it off until later in the season.  Sure, it would be like celebrating July 4th on Oct 4th but at least you’d survive until the next May to put it off again.

In the case of the Mayapple timing is everything. These familiar palm-like forest floor plants emerge under the open canopy of spring and flower in Late April/May. By the end of May, some of the plants are well on their way to producing their name-sake apples (see below). Only the two-leaved stalks produce apples (the single leavers do their best to look like miniature palm trees). Unfortunately at this stage of the game the fruit is poisonous. You need to wait until the thing is ripe and yellow before venturing a bite. They say they are edible but, even then, we are cautioned not to eat the seeds or the rind. The only question is determining when the fruits are ripe. I would also add that the question of personal sanity enters into this discussion as well.

Every part of the mayapple is poisonous. The rhizome, or underground stem, is especially toxic. One botanical account flatly states that Indians used it in order to commit suicide. Now there’s a thought. It was well known among non-suicidal Indians that burying the fruit allowed them to ripen properly before eating. Another source reminds us that the plant is useful for eliminating Chipmunks. I’m not sure why anyone would want to eliminate Chippers, but we can all store that one away in our book of useless knowledge. The Chipmunk death apple story is doubtful, however, because chippers and mayapples are found in the same habitat. I have never seen a pile of these dead rodents under any Mayapple.

Still another reference says that Mayapple compound was used to cure chickens with diarrhea! This last reference does not elaborate; however, my limited medical knowledge allows me to state that dead chickens do not get the runs.

In short, the only non-deadly part of the Mayapple is the fleshy part of the ripe fruit. If they don’t outright kill you, even the slightly un-ripe fruits will illicit a strong cathartic effect which might make you act like a dying chipmunk.  So, why bother eating anything off such a toxic plant? Good question. I guess we eat them because we can. Although the fruit is insipid, it is edible -doggone it!

There is only a very narrow window of opportunity for eating Mayapples safely so resist the urge to open that window before it is ready.  They don’t call this plant the “Devil’s Apple” for nothing.

May 26, 2010

The Master of Dung Hill

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:48 am

Butterflies have become symbols of delicacy and freedom over the years. In our world of fiction and philosophy there is nothing more dainty and beautiful than a free-flying butterfly bouncing from flower to flower on a bright summer day. Indeed, there are many butterflies that fit this ideal. I watched dozens of brightly patterned Pearly Crescent butterflies nectaring at crisp yellow dandelions the other day and was captivated by the sight. I was, in fact, nearly lured into spouting a bit of on-the-spot poetry about free spirits drinking up the sweet nectar of life etc. etc. Fortunately, I resisted the urge. This perception is, of course, mostly a human fabrication. Butterflies are no more carefree or delicate than the next wild bum in the field. They are pretty, but that only goes so far.

These gaily colored insects are far more interesting than their flighty reputation might imply. I present to you, as an example, two other butterflies that I encountered on the very same walk along with the Pearly Crescents: Red Admirals & Viceroys. The Admirals were sipping fermented ale and the viceroys were engaging in coprophagy (I’ll explain that in a moment). Many butterfly species feed on things other than nectar – especially early in the field flowering season. It is not uncommon to find these critters feeding on sap, lapping up aphid honeydew, sucking on carrion, or dining on dung and decaying fungi. This does not present a pretty picture for the camera.

The Red Admirals (the same “Admirables” I introduced to you a few blogs ago) were gathering at a willow shrub to suck away at the sap oozing from various bark wounds. The gang of Admirals gathered at this bubbly feast were a tough looking bunch. None of them were one-eyed as far as I could tell, but many were ragged from previous encounters with flycatchers (see above). I’m sure some were missing a few limbs.  These gents were shoving their fellow admirals aside as they jockeyed for position at the sap bar.

The sap was baking in the hot morning sun and it was likely turning to ale, so this scene had all the makings of a drunken bunch of sailors (see above and here). The fact that the location was along a watery marsh side contributed to the nautical nature of the scene. Since butterflies do not have jaws, they are required to suck up the liquid through their long hollow proboscis. One by one they approached the drip and uncurled their long tongue into the brew.

In this case, the Admirals were seeking the high sugar content in the sap in order to keep their energy up. Further down the trail, on a boardwalk overlooking the marsh, three Viceroys were enjoying a meal of raccoon dung. They were seeking minerals and other such nutrients found in the poo. These monarch look-alikes were freshly emerged from their chrysalis. Having overwintered as larvae, they would have spent the first few weeks of this spring eating willow leaves before pupating. Leaf diets are low in sodium and nitrogen, so the first urge of the adult is to make up that deficit. Carnivore dung is especially high in sodium and nitrogenous wastes, so they head for the good crap.

Like the Admirals, the viceroys have straws for mouths and are required to exploit moist food sources. These droppings consisted almost entirely of crayfish remains – claws, legs, fragments of hard shell (proving that there still are wild raccoons out there that eat natural food!). Although the poo was relatively dry and several days old, the morning dew had re-hydrated some of it and provided some liquid offerings.

The eating of poo, by the way, is called Coprophagy. Such a thing is frowned upon in polite society, but among butterflies there are no such taboos. Lepidopterists have long known that the best way to attract butterflies is to……..well, I will leave that one alone. Given this fact, the drunken Red Admirals appear to be downright acceptable. Splash some water in their face and let ‘em sober up a bit and they will be very presentable in public.

We could put this Viceroy vice into a better light, I suppose. Let’s just say that they are known to enjoy seafood on occasion. Crayfish are a delicacy even when pre-processed.

May 23, 2010

Where are the Cows?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:06 pm

The sight of a lone Cattle Egret hunkered down in the middle of a S.E. Michigan field is an unusual one on several different levels. First of all, a lone hunkered cattle egret looks a bit weird. With shoulders hunched, neck withdrawn, and crest erected the thing looks more like a white penguin than a member of the noble egret clan. Secondly, Cattle Egrets are extremely social birds that like to do everything as a group. It’s unusual to see just one. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, they don’t really belong here in the first place.

Given the fact that these pint-sized egrets are originally from Asia, Africa and Europe, the appearance of one might seem more unusual than it really is. It seems that a few of these enterprising birds crossed the Atlantic over a century ago and set up shop in South America. Slowly but surely they advanced northward and made it to southern Florida by 1941. The first Michigan sighting was recorded back in the early 1960’s and in 1983 a pair of these ‘gerts actually nested along Saginaw Bay. They are now regular breeders in Ohio. So, although still considered rare in these parts, a few Cattle egrets have managed to put in a lower Michigan appearance nearly every year since that first step over the state line. This is, in fact, the second cattle egret I’ve seen this season. But, I’d have to go back over a decade and a half to list my last sighting.

This recent individual was dressed in his Sunday best outfit. The buffy patches on the crest, breast, and mid back indicate that this gent was expecting a few chicks to show up at the party. He was, in other words, sporting his breeding colors.

About the size of a glorified Herring Gull, this basically white bird possessed the long neck and legs typical of all egrets but he only extended those appendages when actively hunting (see above and here). Otherwise he chose to adopt the penguin pose. Unlike other egrets (such as the very common and much larger Great Egrets ), Cattle Egrets rarely eat fish. They prefer inhabiting grassy areas where they can pick away at insects and even small rodents kicked up by wandering herds of Cape Buffalo, Zebra, Gnus, and Wildebeest. In the absence of these traditional co-habitants, herds of cattle have been adopted for the purpose. There wasn’t a cow or a female egret to be found in this particular field on this particular day, so our bird looked out of sorts about the whole affair – not to mention rather miffed at my intrusion into his embarrassment.

Overcoming the cowless and gnu-less nature of the field, our fine tufted fellow spent the better part of the afternoon picking through the grass and gobbling up a few prizes along the way. He was gone by the following dawn so I can only assume that he moved on to better pastures – literally.

May 20, 2010

The Cure for Warbler Neck

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:50 pm

A common ailment that strikes naturalists and birders alike is a condition known as warbler neck. This literal pain in the neck stems from looking skyward at tiny birds that are perched in lofty treetop settings.  The May influx of warblers is responsible for most the most serious cases of “WN” – thus the clinical name, although it can also occur while watching fall hawks or while trying to catch gull droppings on the tip of one’s tongue. You know you have it when your neck vertebrae freeze and you can no longer lower your head without generating a series of firecracker loud pops and crackles.

During an especially vibrant burst of spring warbler activity it is darn hard not to over indulge in upward looking. Those little things are so colorful and active that they out-compete the forest floor for eye time. They lead us to neck braces through their siren call. Fortunately, God has provided us with a cure in the form of morel mushrooms. The fact that warbler season and morel season overlap is no accident. It is divine intervention.

To find these elusive fungi you must spend a great deal of time looking down when in those warbler woods.  There is nothing more appealing than the sight of a big beautiful morel mushroom popping up out of the leaf litter.  It is a sight that can instantly pull you away from even the brightest of Blackburnians or Cape Mays. It is also, need I mention, an edible sight. You cannot legally eat wood warblers. Besides, Blackburnians taste like bad sour kraut – or so I’ve heard.

I have never been an accomplished morel hunter, but recently I stumbled (literally) across a cluster of these beauties in a cottonwood woodlot. I was looking up at the time. I would normally look for them when near dead elms or old apple trees but wasn’t thinking about their association with dying cottonwoods. These surprise finds were some of the largest morels I had ever seen. At least one of them was over 30 feet tall – O.K., it was probably more like 9 ½ inches. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of that one, but I did snap a shot of another hefty example (see beginning photo and detail here).

The soaking rains from a few days previous had evidently prompted this gang of Morchella esculenta to make their appearance.  For the most of the year, morels are underground mats of intertwined fibers called mycelial masses. An individual mass, which is “the real mushroom,” can be 1 – 4 meters in diameter. The wrinkled pods we call yellow morels are actually the fruiting, or spore-producing, bodies sent up by the collective mass. One mass produces dozens of “mushrooms” just like a tree produces hundreds of flowers. All are part of one. Given this fact, I’d say my cluster of morels were from one mass because they were identical in shape.

All told, morels look like nothing else on earth (even the so-called false morels don’t really look like the genuine article). Yellow morels have a basic look – that of a rounded knob with a deeply pockmarked surface perched atop a white column – but they vary widely in appearance. Some individuals express themselves as long pointed cones with wide bases. Others are more cylindrical with narrow bases. There is great variety in style of pitting as well. Some have deep “open pits” and others “closed pits” that look like they are filled in. Adding yet further variety to the scene, all morels are hollow but some have thin tissue while others have thick tissue.  All mushrooms coming from a particular mycelial mat will have identical traits.

My finds were of the cone topped, thick based, open pitted, thin-tissued variety but I did not spend too much time admiring their physical beauty. Sure, I took the requisite trophy shot. All good morel hunters do this – they often pose with their finds and hold up especially nice examples as if they were prize trout.  Afterward I sliced them into thin strips and cooked them in a pan of sizzling butter. They were warm, nutty, slightly crunchy, and completely exquisite.

I suppose that looking down too much can cause a condition known as “Morel Neck” but, unlike the opposing warbler-wrought condition, MN is easily cured by chewing.

May 16, 2010

Rock-a-bye Eaglet in the Tree Top

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:58 pm

It was the call I’d been waiting for all month. Dave Best, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was heading over to band our new crop of Lake Erie Metropark eaglets. As always, I was invited to come along. Unfortunately, I’ve missed the opportunity for the better part of the past decade due to scheduling snafus. I was fortunate to have been there when the team banded our first wild eaglet many years ago. That bird, nick-named Jennifer, was the first bald eagle born in our neck of the woods (Lower Detroit River) in nearly a century.

Jennifer’s parents have been returning to the same nest spot since the early 2000’s and have been producing chicks nearly every year. The USFWS banders have consistently returned to the site as well. An earlier flyover spotted two eaglets in the nest, so success was guaranteed – although there was the small matter of reaching the nest. This large structure was positioned high atop a leaning cottonwood tree some 80 feet in the air. Even though the structure was located on park property, it would not be a walk in the park.

Getting there did involve a short walk through the scrubby undergrowth and all the material had to be packed in to the site. On this day, Dave enlisted the volunteer help of his wife along with a young fellow with rock-climbing skills named Matt. I was there as an observer and resident gawker (promising not to say “wow” or “gee whiz” too many times). Upon perceiving us approaching the stately nest tree, the parent birds began to chatter nervously and circled about at tree-top height. If they only knew how much damage they could inflict, the whole situation would have been much different.  Bald Eagles, however, do not engage in nest defense. They merely hang about and fret.

Matt was charged with scaling the tree while the team laid out their examination gear on the woodlot floor. He donned and double-checked his gear and then slowly monkied his way up the trunk (see here ). An occasional side branch hindered his ascent but he made it in good time (see above). “I hate it when he gets an easy tree,” Dave mumbled. Until recently he was the one doing all the ascents but, at the urging of his wife, the task was turned over to the “young bucks.”

At the nest, Matt grabbed one of the eaglets and firmly stuffed it into a blue vinyl bag. I did not see this part of the action, of course, since it took place 80 feet over our heads through a canopy obscured view. I did see the other nestling briefly contemplate jumping from the far side of the nest as his nestmate was being secured, but he opted out upon looking over the edge. The bundled bird was delivered to the ground via a long rope where Mrs. Best did her best to cradle the package and unhook it from the line (see below).

The ground procedure was performed like a slow even dance. Not a second was wasted. First, the eaglet was weighed while still in the bag (see here). It came in at a hefty 7.3 pounds. The befuddled, but exceedingly calm, eaglet was then pulled from the bag and laid upon its back (see beginning photo and below). The talons were wrapped and a blanket thrown over his head. A blood sample was drawn (see here) and a few small body feathers plucked for DNA sampling. The bird was subjected to a series of quick measurements to record the length of the 8th wing primary(see here), length and depth of the bill (see below), length of the toe pad and the length of the large “toe” talon called the hallux (see here). This talon measured over 1.25 in., by the way, and the footpad was 5 inches long. Finally, the bird’s ears and open mouth were checked for potential health problems (see here).

Once this part was completed, an aluminum band was placed around the right leg (see below). For large birds, the bands are secured with rivets rather than the crimping method used for smaller dickey bird bands. The first eaglet, a bird I tentatively (and secretly) dubbed Bernie, entered the record books as number 629-48292.

There were a few minutes made available to get my picture taken with this bird (not my idea, by the way) before it was re-bundled and pulled back up to the nest (see here). In regards to the resulting snapshot of me and the bird (see below), I can say that at least one of us was smiling! The second chick (Inge) was handled in an equally efficient a manner as the first. Being a bit larger at 7.7 pounds, yet younger (36 days as opposed to 40 days) Inge was showing all the indications of being a female. Her footpad measured over 5.25 inches and her hallux claw was nearly 1.5 inches long! She received the official designation as number 629-48293. I will say that she had the prettier eyes, although both had inquisitive deep brown peepers.

During all this time, the parent birds continued to circle but their chortling calls grew more and more infrequent. At one point, one of them landed on a nearby snag and simply watched the proceedings with great interest (see below). Both of these eaglets were respectively 24 and 20 days away from leaving the nest and they still had a lot of growing to do. The parent birds brought them successfully to this stage by keeping up a constant supply of prey to feed the hungry young. A partially eaten large mouth bass on the ground served as evidence of one of the meal options. According to Matt, who spent nearly 45 minutes in the nest during the procedure, there were also pheasant remains scattered about inside. You could say that there were 2 ½ birds in this nest.

As we packed out, Matt reminded Dave that the tree wasn’t especially easy to climb and that the nest was positioned at an inconvenient angle to the trunk. Dave nodded but secretly wished the next tree would be much harder to climb – at least that’s what his eyes said. As for me, the whole experience was uplifting. Two birds in hand proved better than two (or two and a half) in the bush.

May 12, 2010

Red Admirable & the Blue-green Badwing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:49 pm

The Mourning Cloak butterflies have finally yielded their trail guarding rights over to the Red Admirals in my corner of the woods. As revealed by a recent trail walk, the Red Admirals are now patrolling the same trail stretches previously patrolled by their larger purple cousins(see below and here). Like the Cloaks, the males are intercepting everything that moves in the hopes that it is either a female or a rival male “fly.” The Admirals are quicker fliers than their predecessors, however. They take to the air with the slightest of provocation and snap their black & red wings audibly as they flit past your head. When at rest, these critters fold up their colorful wings and blend into the background with their mottled underwings (see here).

When two of these flighty butters meet in mid trail, they circle about each other and spiral upward at the point of contact. This is the contested border line. The rival pair will continue the engagement until reaching the level of the lower branches – at which point one or the other breaks the confrontation off and they flit back down to their respective territories. It is not clear how they determine the result since they don’t appear to actually make contact with each other. Overall, the fight flight is more of a smack talking series of “Oh Yeah?” “Yeah!” “Says who?” “Me” “You and what army?”… The whole thing is performed like a scene from West Side Story. Both are looking to meet a girl named Maria.

You could say that this type of fighting is admirable in its civility. In fact, bringing this term into the conversation reminds me of the name of this species. Contrary to what you might think, the name of the Red Admiral is not naval in origin. It is not even rank oriented. It is shortness-of-phrase oriented. This is another one of those butterflies which are distributed globally over North America and Eurasia. In England, where it was first described, it was originally called the Red “Admirable” butterfly due to its striking appearance. Apparently American folks got tired of saying “admirable” and reduced the name by a syllable to “admiral”.   Either name is fitting for this stately take-charge species, but the original name certainly has a better ring to it. Remember, the more syllables a word has the more important it is.

I also encountered another much smaller representative of the lepidopteran (that would be 5 syllables) clan while weaving past the battling admirables on my walk. This fellow, a beautiful blue-green moth with yellow eyes, was not defending anything in particular (see below and here). He was too small to fight (only 1 inch wingspan), but he exuded an air of defiance none-the-less.  For one thing, his distinctive perching pose was upright as opposed to horizontal – almost like an insect version of bipedalism (yes I know that was a meaningless phrase, but bipedalism has five syllables and therefore I felt it was a useful word in this case). Those eyes and tucked back antennae added to his look.

This diminutive fellow (hey that’s six syllables combined!) didn’t linger in the morning sun for long and soon fluttered back into the undergrowth. I didn’t identify this one until I later consulted my Peterson Field Guide to North American and found him to be a representative of the species Dyspteris abortivaria – known to all frustrated lepidoterists as the Bad Wing Moth. Now, there’s a name with only three short syllables and a story.

Bad wings are members of the familiar group of inchworm moths whose larva have long sticklike bodies. This type feeds on grape leaves as a child moth.  As an adult they exhibit an oddly matched pair of wings in which the hind wings are far smaller than the forewings.  Entomologists have long found it difficult to properly pin this species down in their collections. Because of the disparity in the wing sizes, it is near impossible to get the hind wings to lie properly on the mounting board – thus the name “Bad wing Moth.”

In retrospect, I can see why this little moth projected the attitude it did. He was saying “go ahead, just try to pin me down.  Hey, bub, better bring that army along if youse is going to take me on.” That is an admirable sentiment to be found in one so small.

May 9, 2010

Kings without Borders

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:38 pm

With the welcome appearance of the last wave of spring migrants, this week turned a crucial seasonal corner. By the time the vireos, warblers, flycatchers, and tanagers hit the northern scene you know that spring is getting long in the tooth. The trees are nearly all leafed out (except for those Johnny-come-lately walnuts, of course) and the first bloodthirsty mosquitoes are venturing onto human flesh.  Spring is no longer “new.”  Within the next few weeks, our bird population will settle down to “normal” and the rest of the summer flora and fauna can sidle on in.

The Eastern Kingbirds are among this late spring movement. With their arrival, our local fence posts and dead tree limbs are now re-adorned with their familiar gray and white forms.  Both male and female birds possess distinctively cone-shaped heads and white-tipped tail feathers.  Members of the tyrant flycatcher clan, Kingbirds re-enter their old territories with the confidence of returning royalty. It would be tempting to say that they are “back home” but the truth is far more interesting. Kingbirds, like their fellow May migrants, are actually tropical birds – they are visitors here, not residents.

“Our” kingbirds only spend 3 or 4 months here in the North Country and spend the balance of their year – some 8 months – in the tropics of Central and Northern South America. So, you see, they are not really “ours.” Even though they spend only a small part of their year here, however, their brief stay is an important one. Faced with tremendous competition for food resources and a whole armada of predators in the tropical forests, Kingbirds travel north to raise a family where insects are abundant and there is relative freedom from predators.  Life in the tropics is way too complicated sometimes.

If you judge them by their late spring/summer behavior, you’d think that Kingbirds are non-social carnivorous beasts. Individual Kingbirds rule their patch of field or forest edge as solo monarchs. The only time you’ll see more than one of these birds in the same vicinity is when they pair up to nest and raise young. They are exclusively insect eaters when in our ‘hood – dashing out and back from a set perch to snap up dragonflies, butterflies, and other flying edibles.

Back in their true tropical home, you’d hardly recognize them. Their behavior makes a complete 180 and they become social fruit eaters. These sassy birds revert to flock behavior and gather together in small groups consisting of up to 100. They descend upon the fleshy fruits offered by forest giants such as the giant Matchwood tree which towers over the canopy.  In fact, they act more like Cedar Waxwings than fierce aerial predators.  Remember, this is what they really are in spite of all appearances.

In places such as Panama and Columbia, these tyrants are kings of fruit whereas in Michigan and Ontario they are rulers of flies. They know no borders, per se, and wander about the western hemisphere as if they own it all. And, you could say that they do. All this is hard for us northern bird aficionados to grasp. Knowing this, it would probably be more proper (or is it properer?) to call them by their home town name of Este Tirano rather than the blatantly Anglicized Eastern Kingbird. Should they be greeted with “bienvenido a su retiro el norte de vuestra grandeza humilde” (welcome to your humble northern retreat, your highness) instead of our local downriver “Hey, where you been?”

How you choose to answer the previous question, I’ll leave up to you. If your Spanish as as bad, or as non-existent as mine, then you might end up saying something really embarrassing. For all I know my Google translated welcome phrase might actually say “Your chipmunk is a wrinkle jolly pop.” I choose to simply recognize the incredible fact that our Kingbirds are seasoned travelers who grace us with their brief but welcome presence.

May 5, 2010

Dances with Turtles

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:59 pm

Certainly, none of the moves featured on “Dancing with the Stars” would normally be considered “turtle-like.” Were I a star and were I invited to participate in this program, I might well elicit such comparisons but dance moves are typically characterized as swan or butterfly-like, not reptilian. Turtles are, after all, slow, clumsy and awkward right? In truth, turtles are none of the above. In their element (key word here – imagine human dancers trying to perform on a flooded stage!), turtles are masters of controlled movement. In fact, I would only be so lucky if my feeble attempts were compared to a turtle. “He moved across the floor like a Painted Turtle gliding before his mate” would be a high complement.

You won’t ever hear the above phrase for two reasons. First of all, as I said, I don’t dance and secondly because the stage performance world is woefully ignorant of the graceful courtship dance of the painted turtle. I can, at least, do something about that second point and provide you (and the dance establishment) with a recent glimpse of the Painter’s dance in a nearby marsh. Unfortunately, because this routine occurs underwater, the glimpse will have to be fragmentary. You can see the action in the video (here), but I’ve also posted still segments to break it down.

Once Spring water temperatures reach the 60 degree range these turtles begin to turn their thoughts to love. Finding another of their own kind is the easy part, since they are one of the most common turtles in our area. Once found, however, it is the job of the male to convince the female that he is the one that can bring her out of her shell. She balances her part in the game by alternating between hard to get and man-chasing.

The thing begins with a prolonged chase of the female by the male. She “flees” but not so fast that he can’t keep up. His intent, apparently, is to prompt the female into chasing him. Eventually she does reverse the chase and he swims away – keeping just ahead of her. Since this part of the routine is such a familiar part of our human mating game, I won’t even go any further with this part of the description.

Eventually, the male wheels around and positions himself to face the advancing female (see above) . With careful flips of the back feet he hovers over his station and holds his place. As the female approaches closer he holds out his front legs and spreads his toes. When she is within a few inches of his face, he then brings both feet together, palm out, and sets them to quivering (see below).

Male Painters have long white-tipped claws for this very reason (see here). His claws are pointed directly at his intended and their waving motion is directed into her face.  In the muddy environs of the marsh, the white tips stand out clearly – they are his Bird of Paradise plumes. For some strange reason it reminds me of the dance sequence in Pulp Fiction (a movie I am happy to say I never saw except for the previews of the dance scene).

In this non-fictional case, the larger female recoiled and swam away. The male was forced to re-enact the chase and the dance. How many times, I can’t say, because their shenanigans carried them well out of my view.  Ideally, or fictionally, the female would have responded to the nail waving male by reaching out with her stubby claws and touching his palms. Often the male actually tickles the back of the female’s neck as part of the performance. This done, the two sink down to the murky depths and proceed to mate.

To put all this into perspective, I’ve seen this act many times with captive turtles. Related species, such as the Red-eared Slider also perform the same ritual. This is the first time I’ve seen it in the wild and that makes it “specialer”(as non-English majors would say). I can definitely say –and now maybe you will agree – that the maneuvering, side wheeling, hovering, and coordinated claw quivering was poetry in motion and not the clumsy gyrations of a shell-burdened reptile. Maybe, “Moving with the grace of turtle in love” could very well be a new phrase to add to the language? No, it’ll never catch on unless someone translates it into Spanish (“La mudanza con la gracia de tortuga en el amor”, or something like that).

May 2, 2010

Faded Glory

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:59 pm

Back in early April the male Mourning Cloak patrolling the trail was a sight to behold. He was a deep purple beauty fresh out of hibernation (see above). This sassy fellow let no one pass through his territory without investigation or confrontation. He had picked a sunny portion of the trail where the mid-morning sun best captured his deep colors and bright trim. The males of his species were repelled and the females were duly courted. Human passersby were given warning flybys – as if to say “this place is mine but you are granted a temporary pass.”

Three weeks later this male was still vigorously manning his station, but showing the wear of duty.  Mourning Cloaks are members of a group of butterflies known as the anglewings. The tattered appearance of the wings is by natural design and not by accident. There is no better sight than a crisp-winged Cloak in early spring uniform (see above). As the season wears on, however, that sculptured tattering becomes real tattering and the wing fabric becomes rife with holes. By seasons end – and by that I mean late April/early May – the once grand purple has faded to brown and the yellow trim to sepia (see below and here).

This butterfly has certainly earned his appearance. Cloaks have one of the longest life spans among all North America butterflies. They are hatched as larvae in late spring, emerge in late summer, overwinter as adults, and complete their cycle the following spring. This means that a typical individual can expect to live 10 or 11 months. In human years you could say that is around 90 (in dog years, why, we are looking at around 105 ½ give or take!).Their last few months of life are among the most active of their career. They do not go into retirement, but instead beat up against the pane of life until they are broken, bald, and dead. Unlike other butterflies that normally represent temporary delicacy and tender beauty, the Cloak is a savvy old timer who would spit tobacco if it could (if it had jaws, that is).

I honor this veteran of trail battles but I will not mourn his passing, even though it is technically a Mourning Cloak. There is a problem with this name, you see. The name is an American one – given to the representatives of this worldwide species that happen to live here. You will read, ad nauseum, how it refers to the “traditional purple cloaks worn by mourners.” The only thing wrong with this is that there appears to be no such thing!  Black has long been the color of 18th/19th century mourning practices in these parts. Purple trim was allowed for light mourning after the required period, but complete purple robes were not. The only explanation I can find is a reference to the royal purple robes mockingly placed on Christ before he was crucified. In church history, purple robes still represent the symbolic mourning of Christ prior to Easter.

I can only hope, by bringing this up, that we can lay to rest a long, and oft repeated fallacy, about the name “Mourning Cloak”. In Europe, this butterfly is strictly called the “Camberwell Beauty” or the “Grand Surprise.”  These were the names associated with it when the species was first officially described in 1758. It is still a rare surprise every time it shows up in England – thus the second name. As you might have guessed, it was an early surprise appearance along Cold Arbour Lane in Camberwell, England which resulted in the original name.

Fortunately, the sight of one of these ragged Cloaks – or Beauties, Surprises, or however you wish to call them – is not a rare American event. Because these creatures live so long, maybe it is right to call them equally by all three names.

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