Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 30, 2010

Snakes on a Lane

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:43 pm

While the cinematic reference of this piece may be a bit obscure, the subject is directly entertainment related. Should you ever find yourself in northern Michigan and at a lack for things to do, then I have a suggestion. There are many different things to do up in these parts and most of them involve off-roading and engines of some sort. So, wanting to fit in somewhat, we decided to spend a few hours on-roading for snakes. Yes, you read right – driving on the backroads looking for linear reptiles.

If you found “Snakes on a Plane” creepy then you will not appreciate my entertainment suggestion so you are free to skip this entry entirely. The cool early fall weather provides a great incentive for lane snaking. The snakes come out onto the roads in order to soak up some of the morning sun. This past week the evening temperatures have been dipping down into the low 40’s so the reptiles are needful of all the extra solar heating they can get during the day.

Road basking is a hazardous task for late season snakes, especially given the number of vengeful drivers out there who delight in running the poor things over. The trick to snake laning is to detect the snakes long before you accidently run them over, pull off the road without alerting your quarry, and getting out to grab them, observe them, or simply photograph them. You’ll need to drive with one eye on the road ahead, and one on the road itself with your third eye scanning the rear view mirror for traffic. If you do not have a third eye, then a wife will do. Oh, by the way, the Michigan Department of Traffic Safety requests that this activity shouldn’t be done on a busy road – it must be a back road with no real traffic.

Our chosen snake laning morning took us along a dirt road that had not seen a vehicle since the previous night (I know this due to the night rain, Sherlock) and onto a blacktop that served only the local cottage crowd. We came upon several snakes on that round. Three of them were unlucky enough to have already found themselves between the rubber and the road, but two were alive and well.

Since I’ve presented Northern Water Snakes to you before, I will only briefly exhibit a few shots of the first snake. It was a young water snake lounging in mid lane like a stick. This fellow, a crisply marked young individual, was only about a foot long and was in full stretch when first encountered. Upon my approach it recoiled a bit and took on a slight attitude. Because the morning was still cool, however, his actual movement was slow as if to say “Haaaaay, I Seeeeee Yooooooou.” Here is it for you to see (above) and to admire the banding and dark background color of this species. The young ones have an especially bold pattern.

I made sure to shuffle this guy off the road before moving on to the next discovery. This is another primary rule of snake laning, by the way. You must make sure your snake is out of harm’s way before the next car comes by. It is very probable that the next passer by will be Alice Cooper. You can’t do anything about the snake’s probable return to the open road, but at least you can leave the scene with a free conscious.

The second snake was a Ribbon Snake. These very slender members of the garter snake tribe are common enough, but I have never before seen one in the wild and I’m banking that you may not have either (if you have, then you have permission to leave the room and watch “Snakes on a Plane”).

At first glance this serpent appeared from a distance to be a common Garter Snake (see beginning picture) but the combination of three very clear lines and a very skinny frame marked him for what he was. This individual, having the advantage of an extra half hour of solar heating, was a bit more on the ball than the earlier water snake. He tried to make a break for the shoulder as soon as it realized I wasn’t a car, so I had to grab him for some close examination (remembering the old adage that a snake in hand is better than two on the tarmac).

There are two more very specific traits, beyond the aforementioned items, which serve as identifiers for the Ribbon Snake. The upper set of scales on the lip are unmarked and appear to be solid white (see above) whereas the Common Garter has patterning on these scales. A second feature, less obvious but equally important, is that the lateral lines are located on the 3rd and 4th line of scales as opposed to  the Garter whose lines adorn the 2nd and 3rd row.

Now, not having held a Ribbon Snake before, the one trait that really caught my eye was the beautiful brown color of the sides which contrasts so nicely with the light belly (see above). It was such a rich brown shade that to simply call it “brown” seems less than adequate. I’d like to call it Burnt Chestnut or German Chocolate, even if those terms are not scientific. But, hey, since lane snaking is not a purely scientific pursuit, I feel fully justified. Afterall, lane snaking as a sport needs some emotionally descriptive language in order to catch on.

Next week: the downriver sport of Raccoon Canning.

September 26, 2010

It Just Ain’t Natural!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:11 pm

If I were to read you a headline like “Mom Gives Birth to Pregnant Daughter,” it would be natural for you to suppose that it came from the “National Enquirer”. After all, this would rank right up there with alien space babies and man-eating chinchillas in terms of un-believability, right? Well, actually, this statement could have “Scientific American” legitimacy if the mom/daughter/un-born trio in question were insects –aphids to be exact. These tiny sap-suckers can do this kind of thing, you know, and I find it to be slightly unsettling from a male’s perspective. But, there is a deeper horror to this scenario.

This summer has been an especially good year for aphids, which is why I bring this topic up. By good, of course, I mean bad for you gardeners out there.  I guess I can’t speak up for all types of aphids, but I can definitively state that this has been a banner year for a specific kind known as the Oleander Aphid (see above). A carrot-colored European immigrant who hitched a ride on imported Oleander plants, the O. A. (as I shall call the Oleander Aphids from now on) have taken to our native milkweeds in a big way. Butterfly weed, Common Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweed fall into this category. Not every plant, but a majority of those I saw after mid-summer were infested with the O.A.s. The spindly Swamp milkweed has certainly been hit hard.

A normal Swamp Milkweed in autumn should be bearing upward pointing seed pods – string bean versions of the more robust Common Milkweed pods (see here). An O.A. infested plant, on the other hand, will be nearly un-recognizable (see here a shot with a lone ladybug feasting on the flock). The creatures will populate the tender stems and leaves in such numbers that the plant is completely covered. In small numbers, the creatures do little harm, but in big numbers they can literally suck the life out their host. This is not the deeply unsettling part of my discussion, by the way, but it is bad enough.

Up close, an individual O.A. looks like an orange balloon with a pair of black bristles sticking out of the fat end.  It is exceedingly hard to just see one of these aphids, I know, but a close look at a colony will show lots of individuals. The narrow, or head end, is equipped with a hollow straw mouth which does the plant juice sucking. Those butt end bristles, called cornicles, are also hollow and they exude drops of sugary fluid called honey dew. Again, even though this sounds frighteningly close to “Honey Do” – as in jobs- I have not yet arrived at the scary part.

These creatures are flightless, for the most part. Generation upon generation will pass before a few scattered winged ones appear (see above the individual at top center). The winged alates, as they are referred by people far smarter than I, are for migration purposes.  When a colony gets so dense that their host plant starts to die from sap drainage, the winged forms are released onto the world in order to find sappy new home worlds. In truth, these distant worlds may only be a few feet away, but for a juice bag shaped wingless insect such as a typical O.A., it might as well be a million miles. So, Oleander Aphids flee the ship when times get tough.

Although not “manly”, it is perfectly alright to adopt this “rat abandon ship” mode in order to survive, but what is not alright here is that every single O.A. is a female. Yes, that’s right, every single one of these things from the tiny ones to the bloated balloon ones, and even the winged ones, are girls. There are no male O.A.s!  Yes, now you know the crux of my concern.

All aphids have the ability to reproduce by means of parthenogenesis. In other words, they can produce young without the benefit of male genetic material exchange. At the height of a season, a female can indeed give birth to a daughter who in turn is already “with egg” herself. This is called telescoping generations, by the way. Eggs are not laid, but the young are popped out just like human moms do it except without the breathing exercises (insects breathe through holes in their sides). But, even normal aphids will eventually produce a generation of males at the end of each season so that there is some sex before winter comes. Eggs are laid and the whole thing starts anew next year.

As far as anyone knows, however, Oleander Aphids never produce a male generation at all. They appear to be doing famously without the male gender – period. They are, in fact, spreading across the globe. There are other examples in the natural world where this one-sided sexism exists, but there are no examples where only males exist. I would find all this really fascinating if it didn’t trouble me to the core. The next time I feel useless I’ll have to consider the option that maybe I really am!

September 24, 2010

A Fall Peek at a Spring Peep

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:53 pm

There are many things I expected to see on my mid-September day walk. I count among these expectations, Woolley Bear caterpillars earnestly rambling across country roads, Monarch Butterflies drifting about on the airy currents, and Goldenrod flowers – lots of goldenrod flowers. On this particular day last week, a glorious one by all September standards, I saw all the above and more. What I did not anticipate was an encounter with a Spring Peeper! I mean, it is fall after all. It’s hard enough to find one of these diminutive amphibians in the springtime and even then they come out only at night. Here was a Peeper out in full view in the middle of the day and late in the season.

The tiny tan frog was sunning itself on the upper center of a red maple leaf. It stood out like a Spring Peeper on a fall day there in the full light of the sun. Unlike tree frogs that can change shade from gray to green, peepers are restricted to a particular shade of light creamy brown with a light brown “X” on the back. These features, along with the tiny bandit mask, are definitive peeper particulars. There was, therefore, no attempt to blend in or hide in this case. From its chosen position on the leaf it was obviously sunning itself.

Initially, the creature was hunkered into a tight oval pose – eyes closed and body plastered tight to the leaf surface (see above). I watched it for a short while through the camera lens so as not to disturb it. The disc-like toe pads, which clearly mark this little beast as a climber, were visible along with the dark brown underside of the back feet. You’ll have to excuse me for all this doting, for it had been a very long time since I’d seen one.

Even though I hear them every year, the last time I actually saw a live Peeper was when I caught one in the Great Smokey Mountains over 25 years ago. Back then, before the luxury of digital cameras, I took the opportunity to confine the thing in a jar and enter it as a sketch in my naturalist’s notebook. I drew a picture of one of those giant mountain millipedes on the same page This one was about the size of a breakfast sausage as I recall. Well, being at a lack of suitable containers, I put both creatures together in the same jar and the millipede killed the peeper. O.K., it didn’t outright maul it to death, but I later learned that millipedes exude a defensive poison. This millipede was apparently feeling defensive and willingly, or un-willingly, did his jar companion in. At any rate, I learned to never mix ‘pedes with peepers (a lesson I have never been able to call into play since).

Safe from the poisonous reach of giant southern millipedes, my newly discovered fall peeper was enjoying his last rays of sun. He was content with the world until the rumbling of a low flying passenger jet stirred him into action. The vibrations caused it to begin chirping. It rose up its head and rhythmically chortled until the gigantic “frog in air” moved on. Now arisen from deep slumber, the peeper took advantage of the situation to crawl up the leaf a few inches to re-position in relation to the changing angle of the sun.

After settling back into the sun worshipping mode, it resumed its tight oval pose (see here). I chose to leave the critter to its own at this stage. There are only so many pictures you can take of a resting peeper before you’ve tapped all the angles – sleeping peeper seen from the right, left, center, etc.  But, because I may never see one in such a clear light again, I took all the shots I felt like and a few I didn’t feel like. I even tried to get one of the peeper peeping over the edge of the leaf just so I would have a clever title for this blog entry. But, alas my shortcomings as a photographer didn’t allow it. Had I my naturalist’s notebook I could have drawn the scene just as I wished it.

I’m sure this little peeper wishes that the sunny autumn days will never end. Soon he will have to descend to the leaf litter and bury itself before the killing frosts hit. Come to think of it, however, I really can’t know what goes on in the mind of a peeper and I am glad of it. Was this guy thinking that the jet was another frog – something like the voice of the frog god? At any rate, I would not want to know what my captive peeper was thinking 25 years ago. Was his last thought “Oh my frog god! I’m locked up with one of those freaky giant millipedes. What? No, I didn’t say anything about you. Really, I di….”

September 21, 2010

Behold the “Tail”

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:12 am

Behold the “tail “-

So young, yet so sturdy.

His tail not yet rusty,

But still sorta purdy

In the world of hawk watching, Red-tailed Hawks are known by several names. When observing the autumn sky for migrants, there is little time for a counter to use their proper names. The fall hawk migration over the Detroit River mouth at Lake Erie Metropark is nothing short of phenomenal. Counters assemble along the shore to record 16 plus species of raptor as they funnel over the site on their southward journey from Ontario to all parts south. On some days, the numbers are so over-whelming that names have to shortened in order to identify one before the other appears. So, Sharp-shinned Hawks become “sharpies” and Turkey Vultures are lovingly called “T.V.s”. Red-tails become “tails.” On the record sheet, the “tails” are reduced to the initials “RT.”

This past weekend, we held our 21st annual Hawkfest at Lake Erie Metropark to call attention to the hawk migration phenomenon. The festivities include identification classes, presenters with live birds, kid’s games, artwork, and food, but “tails” figured prominently in this year’s event. A select group of hawk banders (under the able guidance of veteran bander Dave Hogan) are invited to set up in a remote section of the park. During this particular weekend, any bird they happen to capture and band is brought over to the festival site for a bit of public show ‘n’ tell before it is released. This is the best part of the weekend for me. Unfortunately, it is also the one of the most unpredictable events because you never know when, or if, anything will show up in the banders nets. Last year we were skunked – not a one.

This time around, we ended up with over ten Sharp-shinned Hawks, a few Coopers Hawks, and three immature Red-tailed Hawks.  In any given year, the Sharpies and “coops” can be counted in a typical catch, but the ‘tails are always an unexpected treat. The trio of young RT’s were definitely a special feature of this year’s event.

The last catch of the weekend was an immature Red-tail, so this is the bird I chose to display here. It was also the inspiration for the crummy little line of verse at the beginning of this piece (hey, it ain’t no “hey diddle diddle” but it will do). This was a young bird, probably born 4 or 5 months ago, as evidenced by the banded tail (see above) and fiery yellow eyes. Both features will change as the bird matures – the eyes turning deep brown and the “sorta purdy” tail taking on the solid rusty red hue which is responsible for the bird’s full name.

Although young, make no mistake, it was full sized and fully equipped as a mouse killer. Take a close look at those powerful talons and dagger-like claws (as well as the respectful manner in which the bander was holding these appendages). The reptilian nature of these robust feet is reminiscent of the dinosaurs they once were. When employed in the predatory trade, these tools are used to crush the prey and rupture vital innards as well as to pin the unfortunate victim to the ground for dissection. The actual dissection of the prey is managed by the hooked beak which systematically tears off chunks of flesh.

The eyes, of course, are used to spot that prey in the first place. Due to their placement they provide a binocular view of the scene before them. A frontal view of this bird (see below) reveals a full forward gaze. In this case, the creature was fixed upon me – perhaps hoping that I inch just a little bit closer…just a wee bit closer still… so that I could be taught a lesson. Oddly enough, however, a captured bird rarely bites but usually just remains in an open mouthed pose.

This youngster patiently endured its five minutes of public adoration. There were about 80 people gathered at the time and all were entranced. The paparazzi raised their cell phone cameras and recorded the scene for all different angles before the bird was released into the air at the collective count of one….two…three. A spontaneous round of applause sent it skyward and swiftly out of sight. A few downy feathers floated to earth as the only reminder of the recent happening.

Such a bird, and such an opportunity, is a magical thing. This was a wild bird and one which hopefully will never feel constrained by human hands again. The aluminum band, gifted it by the researchers, may some day be recovered and yield yet another piece in the life story of ‘tails. One harsh fact that has been revealed by banding efforts is that nearly three-quarters of young hawks, like this one, do not survive their first winters. The predatory learning curve is simply too steep and there are no second chances in nature. Let’s hope this bird will be among the top 25% that beat the odds and returns next year as a checkmark in the RT column.

September 16, 2010

Prairie Wolf Afoot

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:03 pm

I can’t count the number of times I’ve brought up the subject of coyote tracks over the years. As a matter of fact, I just displayed  a coyote track (hind foot impression)  in my last posting didn’t I? I do this because:  a) coyotes are exceedingly common and they frequently leave track evidence and b) Michigan coyotes are exceedingly hard to spot because they are very wary beasts. This means I only see the animal itself once or twice a year and those times are fleeting and/or dimly lit. So, I am compelled to resort to photographing track evidence in order to reveal features of coyote life such as mouse hunting, scent marking, and long nocturnal wanderings.

Tracks are fine, but on a recent trek down old M-12 towards Moscow, I literally came one step closer to the real thing. A freshly dead coyote lay at the side of the road (there are no appropriate road runner jokes to insert here). It had apparently been struck by a car earlier in the morning and was still slightly warm. Unfortunately, even according to my standards, the poor thing was not presentable for photography except for its feet. So, being ever the practical naturalist, I took the opportunity to examine those feet right then and there.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere. Around these parts, road kills tend to get scooped up and processed by the locals. By that I mean, fur-bearers such as foxes, raccoons, and the like are picked up and their skins processed for sale. This is a very good thing, by the way – I mean, what is the value in leaving something to waste. Squirrels and rabbit kill won’t be touched, but all other game is game. At any rate, I felt that I needed to look at the thing right away because it would not be there on my return trip. Wow, can you believe that I actually spent an entire paragraph trying to explain why I stopped to look at a road-kill! Sorry, that won’t happen again.

Now, back to the track-making appendage of the coyote. Noting that there were no Acme Rocket Skates attached to the feet (oops), I set about to document the situation and grabbed hold of the front feet (see below). It is true that in most four footed mammals, the front feet are both larger and differently shaped than the back feet.  In the case of the dog family, this trait is obvious. The front foot is normally about ¼ inch longer than the back.

Take a look at the toe pads of the coyote and you are starring at something very familiar – especially if you are a dog owner. The four main toes are clustered into a quadrafoil arrangement, the fifth toe is located well up on the leg, and there is a central pad (see beginning photo). Overall, the foot is much more elongated than that of a domestic dog and, of course, the toenails are not neatly trimmed. Imagine the clicking noise a coyote would make if it walked across your kitchen floor. For that matter, imagine the noise you would make upon seeing a wild coyote walk across your kitchen floor!  Anyway, the outline of the pads is generally oval.

The back foot (see above) has a very un-doglike look. Although the four toe pads are similar to the front, the central pad is very narrow and three-lobed. This part of the creature looks much more like a fox foot, except on a much larger scale. Given the amount of hair between the toes, and the narrowness of the central pad, this part of the foot often leaves an indistinct impression in the soil.

I suppose there is only so much time one can spend looking at coyote feet, and I also suppose that we have just exceeded that time limit. Remember, however, that the study of wild feet is time well spent. If one measures their time one foot at a time then we are several more feet into a good life. Besides, it’s always fun to look at people stare at you as they fly down the highway. They look at you, then the dead animal in front of you, then they notice the fact that you are touching that dead animal, and then they press on the accelerator and Me-beep! They are off.

September 13, 2010

A Dusty Road Tells All

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:53 pm

Most of the posts originating from my Dollar Lake cottage have focused on the lake side of the yard.  This is a perfectly natural thing given that this is the view that brought my wife and I there in the first place. This also happens to be the view which denies the presence of my neighbors or of the road that brings us there. In lakefront cottage lingo, this is the front yard.

The back yard faces a scattering of small cottages and a few long forgotten trailers distributed within a thin oak/heather woodland. I do occasionally go on early morning rambles along the “streets” of my northern Michigan neighborhood since this is the so-called sunrise side of the place. To call them streets is, of course, a wide stretch of the imagination because they are really nothing more than sandy strips of earth. In some places, they are mere two tracks which only feel the imprint of few passing vehicles daily. Because there is no night traffic on these roads, they act as faithful recorders of the animal activity of the “hood.” Every night creature that passes over the dusty strip is recorded in the powdery medium. Although often these tracks are subtle, the hard angled light of the rising sun acts to highlight these traces. This is why I take those early morning rambles – to read what nocturnal nature has written.

Probably the most frequently encountered sign is that of the lowly American Toad. Because their gait is rather short, individual toads are required to leave a lot of toe pad prints over any given stretch of road bed. When hopping, something that toads are not very good at but will attempt, they leave clustered prints clearly showing toe pads and the distinct toe-marks of the hard inward curled front feet (see here). In reality, Toads walk most of the time so their tracks exhibit the measured gait of a four-legged creature (see above).

At one location, a toad tossled with an insect and in so doing left a whole patch of toad marks (see above). This location looked more like a dance floor than a road bed (I understand toads can do a mean Tango). The trail of the ill-fated partner in this dance, an insect, was barely detectable in the upper right hand corner of this “kill site” as a set of parallel commas. Needless to say, the insect trial stopped at the center of the dance floor and only those of the warty amphibian left it.

Further down the road, the distinctive tracings of an unmolested beetle (see above) were in evidence where it crossed the dusty stretch. A snake, likely a Garter, produced a linear trace adjacent to the beetle tracks (see here). Since tracks of this nature do not leave a time signature, it was impossible to say whether the snake was in pursuit of the insect or just sharing some temporal space. It was relatively certain that the combination of cat and mouse tracks (see below) were laid down at vastly different hours. The white-tailed Mice that laid the set of tracks crossing the image from left to right cross the pad marks of the passing feral cat. The cat eventually ended up in my yard feeding on the fish remains down by the dock at 3 am (thanks to a capture on my trail cam).

The paired impressions of a cottontail rabbit (see below) clearly show where the front feet landed (to the left) and the longer hind feet eventually struck ground at the right. The creature was in fast mode at the time and was probably uncomfortable crossing the open sand in the moonlight. Oddly enough, I saw no raccoon tracks after several consecutive morning searches, but did see ample opossum tracks, deer, and even the singular pads of a coyote (see here).

As early as I rose to meet the sun each day, there were plenty of day shift workers that beat me to it. Their marks were already beginning to add a new layer over the previous night’s tracks. As evidence of this, a clear set of evenly paced Mourning Dove tracks (see below), some Turkey tracks (see here) and even a Grey Squirrel made their presence known.

The road slate was wiped clean by the end of each day – ready for the telling of new stories.

There was one track maker that was still in the road as I passed on one of the mornings. This fellow left a set of quizzical flailing marks in the morning dust. They were like those of a wounded snake only much smaller (see above). Fortunately, the solution to the origin of these marks was only a few inches away and in the process of making similar tracings.  I’d like to see if you can figure it out, before I reveal the identity of the maker. It is a squirming linear beast of moist soils. Let’s just say that this creature, unlike those I recorded earlier, was not well suited to crossing dusty roads. He was dragging much of the road with him by the time he struggled to the other side. Give up? O.K., click here and read the title of this photo. You could call this a dirty trick, but I prefer to call it a dusty one.

September 9, 2010

Who Dat!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:06 pm

There are some critters that are continually remarkable. No matter how many times you see them, each sighting causes instant amnesia and a declaration of surprise and new admiration. For me, sturgeon and newly emerged Polyphemus moths are like that, but I have a special place for the likes of the Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar. This is a creature that hides all the time and rarely moves unless prompted, but oh, how well it is packaged and presented.

In spite of their name, Spicebush Swallowtail larvae can be found on Sassafras trees as well as Spicebush bushes. The female butterflies will lay their eggs equally on both. This probably presented a small problem in the naming department at some point. Folks just couldn’t go around saying things like “Look there’s a Spicebush/Sassafras Swallowtail.” Name simplification was required. Spicebush sounds more exotic and alluring, so that was the name that stuck. I mean, a Sassafras Swallowtail sounds more like some kind of tame Root Beer Drink. A Spicebush Swallowtail, on the other hand, sounds like something that is alcoholic and perhaps even illegal on Sundays in some parts of the country.  Fortunately, this swallowtail is not a drink, legal or otherwise, but it is refreshment for the eyes.

Finding the larvae of this species involves a bit of a search. It is like searching through the Christmas packages to find the one with your name on it (What! Only one!). You need to search through the leaves to find one that is folded like a taco (Yes, I know, we don’t get tacos for Christmas but I am on to a new analogy now.) Take a look at the photo above and you’ll see what one of these tree tacos look like. From their very first stages, the caterpillars create these structures as protective shelters. They do this by weaving a mat of silk on the upper leaf surface –an act which eventually causes the two leaf edges to draw together to create a leafy taco. The larvae will exit the shelter to feed and retreat to it when resting or changing skins.

As the caterpillar grows, it creates larger shelters in order to accommodate its increasing size (about 2 inches at maximum size).  This means that there will be a series of these tree tacos spread about within the feeding area of the larvae. You’ll need to look in all of them in order to find the resident ‘piller. Since the top edges are not knit together by silk you can carefully slip your finger in the top and force it open. The empty ones will occasionally have a spider inside, so do your duty carefully. Upon opening an occupied shelter you will still jump back a little because the Spicebush Caterpillar is a shocking beast (see below).

Adorned with a double set of false eye spots, the caterpillar looks like a miniature snake. It positions itself within the taco tube so that the fake eyes are facing upward toward the stem. This front door entrance is left open for exit and entry and you could, if you wanted to skip all the package opening, look down into the doorway and see the larvae before opening the shelter (see beginning photo). But, where is the challenge in that!

The pseudo eye spots are there to frighten potential predators. You can get a good sense of that when you first open the leaf (see above). If agitated, like all members of the swallowtail family, the larvae will extend a pair of brightly colored stink horns out of a pouch just above the head, but they are not prone to do so unless really bothered. Once you are over the initial shock, you then have time to admire the rest of the lime-green body adorned with powder blue spots. The lower half of the caterpillar, including the real head, is subtly colored. The bright upper half gets all the attention and I think you’ll agree that it certainly deserves it – again and again (see close up here). By the way, should you find a spicebush caterpillar that is bright orange, instead of green, that means it is in the final stages before pupation.

I have a Sassafras tree in my backyard that regularly hosts these caterpillars and I try to find them there every year. Sure enough, every time I do find one I am delighted and visually refreshed. Call it short-term memory loss or low expectations on my part, but let’s call it what it really is: Nature is a present that continually gives.

September 5, 2010

Hot Snake on a Hot Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:40 pm

This was the first time that I’ve seen a water snake lingering by my Dollar Lake dock. The creature just seemed to appear. I walked by the spot once and when I turned around, it was just there – lounging in the weed-choked waters under the glare of the mid-day sun.  A nearby green frog, only a few feet away, also apparently saw it and froze like a fawn trembling in the presence of a hungry wolf. The wolf, or snake in this case, was not in a hunting mood but rather in a lazy sunshine basking mood. The frog was not in a discriminating mood, however, and chose to react as if the situation were potentially deadly. Frogs don’t have the luxury of mistakes. So, there next to my dock was a still life consisting of a very rigid snake and a stone-like frog set among gobs of submerged plant life.

My first pictures were tentative and quick in the event the creature – the snake, that is – decided to dart away. Water snakes can be notoriously shy and flighty. But, after a dozen more shots I finally realized that this one was either dead or in a hypnotic basking state. It was equally oblivious both to me and the frog. It moved once, so I determined that it was not dead.

As a species, the Northern Water Snake is a variable creature of color. You may recall the pale sub-species I introduced to you last year from the Bass Islands of Lake Erie. Some can be nearly black in shade, while still others sport a stunningly beautiful red-brown and cream combination. My Dollar Lake snake was average in all respects.  One pattern aspect worth noting is that the markings on the first third of the body are bands running across the width of the snake and these bands eventually take on a broken rectangular design with alternating side blotches at the tail end. There is pattern to their pattern, you could say, but that would be a relatively meaningless statement akin to saying “all you need is love”. But, since I’ve already said it, we need to move on and trust our short-term memory to erase the whole thing.

The creature did appear to be smiling as if it were enjoying its sun-induced stupor.  The curved jaw angle implied a somewhat sinister, if not menacing, look to the face. Combined with a relatively flat head and forward placed eyes, the look of a water snake is one of unintentional slyness. Of course, you can’t judge a book or a snake by its cover. There are no mean or sly animals in nature – they just are what they are. True, water snakes tend to be more “bitey” than other snakes and possess anti-coagulant saliva to induce heavy bleeding, but not all of them choose to exhibit this trait. This one, for instance, made no move to strike at, or escape from, the inquisitive naturalist hovering around it.

Another detail easily observable on such a still snake, are the keeled scales (see detail above). In other words the individual scales each have a ridge running down their centers like an over-turned boat. One needs to pay attention to such things when identifying snakes because some have keeled scales while other do not. Scales without keels are called smooth scales. I’ve just blurted out another meaningless statement, didn’t I? Sorry, that was almost like saying that water snakes live in the water.

Thanks to a paper by some Rutgers University researchers, I can now say something meaningful about basking water snakes. Through their research, it has been determined that New Jersey Northern Water Snakes will engage in basking when the air temperature is between 53 and 86 degrees F. and the water temperature is cooler than the air. The greater the difference between the two temperatures, the greater the chance that basking will occur. They do not generally bask on really warm days over 89 degrees F. According to this group, the snakes typically choose a dead cattail clump or a low-hanging clump of willow branches as their basking site. Oddly enough, my snake was simply lying exposed on a bed of vegetation on a very hot day where the water was about as warm as the air. So, this proves that Northern Michigan Water Snakes don’t read and New Jersey Water Snakes do.

I did not share any of this with the terrified Green Frog for it would only fall as meaningless vibrations upon his quivering little ear drums.

September 2, 2010

Crater Makers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:01 pm

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the sequence that takes place over the giant Sarlacc pit in which Luke, Leah, Chewbacca, and the gang avoid certain death in the open jaws gaping at the bottom of the pit. I am, for those of you not versed in classic science fiction, referring to the Star Wars series and the movie Return of the Jedi. The scene takes place on the desert planet of Tatooine “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” Specifically the creature is in the great pit of Carkoon in the northern Dune Sea, but let’s not get too picky here. The creature depends upon wandering creatures and/or villains to bumble into the pit and slide down the sandy slope to their doom.

Fortunately, or unfortunately – depending how you view such things – there are real life Sarlaccs right here on earth in a place not so far away. They are the larval form of an insect called the Ant Lion. Although only ¼ inch long, these un-worldly looking beasts create sand craters in order to trap passing insects such as, well, ants.

Most nature type folks are aware of Ant Lions, but they are always worth a closer look. I fondly remember spending countless hours, as a kid, tossing ants into the neighborhood ant lion pits just to watch them die. This activity was much more satisfying than cooking ants with a magnifying lens. It’s been a very long time since I’ve sacrificed an ant at the altar of craterdeath, so I decided to try it again. The results were surprisingly tame this time around. Perhaps youthful imagination provided the screams of agony and the roar of beastly madness, because each event was over in a silent flash.

The larvae of the antlion looks like a hairy wart coupled with a pair of nasty hedge-clippers (see above). Arguably, it is one of the ugliest creatures on earth with the possible exception of Dog the Bounty Hunter. It is a hunchback thing with (proportionally) enormous toothed jaws. They construct their sand traps through a series of backward spiraling movements. The sand is flipped out at regular intervals with a jerk of the head. Eventually an inverse cone is created in which the sides are barely stable (something called the angle of repose). In all, the structure varies in size from one to two inches across. The larva positions itself at the bottom with only a portion of the head and jaws exposed. There it waits with infinite patience.

When an insect does tumble in, or one is thrown in by a sadistic naturalist, it attempts to scramble up but the sides collapse inward with each struggle. The ant lion strategically flips a load of sand at the prey to hasten its fall (You can watch the sequence here – the first part in regular time and the second in super slow motion.). Once in the grip of the lion jaws, the victim is paralyzed and its innards are summarily sucked out. This is why there is very little action at the Sarlacc pit after the initial struggle. Like a used box drink, the empty carcass is later flipped out of the crater.

It is worth noting that the antlion has no anus with which it can poo out the undigested remains of its prey. They essentially store up all this youthful crap and wait until becoming an adult to void it. This goes a long way to explain why the insect has such a big butt.

It can take up to three years for an ant lion larva to grow up (and eventually go to the bathroom). As an accidental predator it takes that long to ingest enough prey juice and gain enough weight to take life to the next stage. The adult antlion, by the way, is a very wimpy looking creature indeed. It is the Dr. Jekyll to the Mr. Hyde.  Think of an anemic damselfly with a set of ridiculous looking antennae and you have a good visual image of the adult. The name “antlion” is definitely all about the larva. It is the vicious larva that was depicted on ancient Mimbres Indian pottery and this is the beast that captures our current imagination.

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