Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 29, 2010

The Vegas Unhuggables

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:21 pm

Who ever named the Teddy Bear Cholla must have had a twisted sense of humor. These upright branching members of the cactus family are anything but huggable. To be honest, there are some 20 different kinds of Cholla (pronounced Choy-ya) in the S.W. and only one of them is officially called a Teddy Bear Cholla. To an outsider looking in – carefully looking in – most of the Cholla in the desert surrounding Las Vegas, Nevada are very similar looking so, please excuse my eastern ignorance on this matter if I mislabel a Kliens’ Cholla and call it a Pencil Cholla etc..

All members of this group, regardless of common name, have cylindrical jointed stems which are armed to the teeth with straight sharp spines. Cactii in general are typified by spines which are nothing more than evil leaves. These armaments act to protect the softer green stem and, in cases such as the Chollas, shade the surface of the cactus stem itself. Teddybears, as I will call them, have a papery sheath covering each spine and are the only cacti to have this. This means that when one is impaled by a spine, the sheath remains in the wound to fester long after the spine is withdrawn. There are also tiny clusters of microspines called glochids located above the base of each main spine and these little buggers have a way of working their exquisite torment even if one merely brushes them.

Chollas are also called “Jumping Cactus” because the segmented sections will break off at the slightest touch or windlashing. I foolishly picked up one of these travelling segments. I did not get skewered by the big spines but was nabbed by several of the glochid micro spines (something I discovered much later as little pain spots developed on the ends of my fingers). Like a moron, I picked up another unidentifed cactus clump later with the same result (see here).

The Prickly Pear Cactuses (see above) that bristle across the Vegas desert are a familiar sight to me because these hardy cactii are found across the country to Michigan and the dunes of the Atlantic. They reach their pinnacle of existence in these western parts, however. Again, known by a dozen species names, all types are typified by the flat pads covered with neat rows of sparse spines and ordered clumps of those nasty glochids. One of them, the so-called beavertail cactus, has an oval pad that resembles that beaver appendage but, like the Teddy Bear Cholla, the resemblance stops at touch. I could not resist stopping to look at nearly every wild specimen I came across because they are, in my humble and rather worthless opinion, just plain neat looking.

They do produce a red oval fruit, but eating these things can be tricky. Only after brushing off the micro-spines does one dare to partake. They say these are quite sweet. I did try one fruit but it was apparently well past the expiration date and tasted something like cardboard pulp. Quite a few wild critters munch on the green pads of the prickly pear and it was not uncommon to find examples with hefty bites taken out of them like pieces of bread (Porcupine Pitas?). Desert tortoises have no problem doing this because their mouths are made of armor – they have no sensitive lips or tender palettes. The wild burros which occupy these deserts apparently knock the pads off and trample them underfoot before eating them.

One of the little community parks in the city of Las Vegas is thickly planted with multitude of huge prickly pear cactus clusters artfully arranged in the gravel. It is supposed to be a children’s playground but I’m not so sure how much active playing actually goes on there (imagine playing ball there: ”I’ve got it, I’ve got it…ouch, I really got it!…yow…help, mommy, help. Let’s just play chess.”

It would be nice if I could pontificate on all the types of cactus in these parts, but I’ll have to introduce you to just a few more and then leave it at that. Ignorance is a blessing sometimes and pictures do tell a story, you know, without need of deep explanation. Take the Barrel Cactus, for instance (see above). These squat rounded cactii have prominent vertical ribs and clusters of nails for spines. Scientifically this genus is known as Ferocactus which could be loosely translated as “fierce cactus.” A regional name, the Biznaga, makes no immediate sense but somehow captures the essence of this plant.

Finally, I present to you the Hedgehog Cactus in picture only (see below). There is not much more to say about this tightly clustered cactus except that it…unlike the teddy bear cactus…is very well named. I do believe that folks ran out ideas when trying to put names on members of the cactus clan. There are only so many words to sum them up. Porcupine balls, Echidna backs, Nail oranges, Ouchy meisters, Hurty sticks, Yowey plants, Unfriendly earth clusters, Vlad the Impaler Roses, and Pain Pillows are a few available examples which I offer. I realize that am a little late in this regard since they have all been named. One label they can all share in common, as far as I’m concerned, is “Fascinating.”

November 26, 2010

Bill Up, Bill Down, Bill Over

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:15 pm

In my recent travels about the Las Vegas landscape, again looking for the wild life far away from the strip, I quite literally stumbled upon Wetlands Park. Although a large green spot on the Clark Co., Nevada map it was hard to find. Let’s just say I found it by “accident” even though I was looking for it. Anyway, my point here is not to tell you about me but to simply deliver you to a unique local place where wetlands are being restored in a desert environment. However, my point isn’t to tell you about this park (because I don’t really know anything about it) but instead to introduce you to three of the park’s avian patrons. My point, actually, is to point out their array of pointed parts – aka beaks.

I met my pointy friends early one morning just as the sun was peeking over the far ridges of the Sunrise Mountains and tumbling down into the valley. The early light illuminated a flowing cat-tail lined waterway loaded with migratory water birds of all make and model.  The dark chunky forms of coot mixed with the more streamlined forms of pintails & a few grebes. And, although I couldn’t see them, the distinctive “wee-wee-geon” calls of Baldpate ducks indicated their presence in the flock as well.  My immediate attention was drawn to the peculiar outlines of a trio of sickle-billed White-faced Ibis feeding in the shallows just beyond my protective veil of cat-tails.  These odd-looking birds grunted like hoarse mallards as they probed the bottom.

This being the only common ibis in the southwest I could be pretty sure they were not Glossy Ibis. Believe it or not, I had actually seen one of these before back in Michigan. That bird was way lost in a strange land, but these were in their native turf (or should I say surf). In full spring color they would have had a distinct white border lining the bare skin patch located between their eye and bill -which is why they are called “white-faced.” Attired in drab winter garb, all three birds displayed bronzy green body feathers and finely speckled heads and necks. Those plumage details are really un-necessary given those long drooping ibis bills which look as though they held them too close to the heat of a fire at one time. They used them to probe the water for invertebrates via a sweeping action of the neck (see here). Long legs, long neck and long down curved bill combine to make for a goofy looking, but efficient, wading bird.

A bit further on, the unfamiliar form of a Snowy Egret presented itself (see above). The bird was standing on the muddy shore and giving me the stink eye and proceeded to suspiciously wade into the water upon my approach. Proportionally, it looked like a typical egret. A few of his fellow Snowys , however, were feeding out in the water next to a Great Egret and they all looked like midgets next to that towering fellow (see here). They were half the larger bird’s size and about the size of the ibis’s (or would that be Ibisii?  I still am not sure how to address the topic of multiple ibis birds. I do wish there was only one present). There were three or four of these mini-egrets (multiple egrets, now that’s easy) and all appeared to be immature birds whose legs were not totally black yet, but they had the black bill and slight crest of their species (see below).

As a member of the heron clan, Snowy Egrets have straight pointed bills for plucking fish, frogs, and larger invertebrates out of the water.  Again, like the ibises(?), these are water birds with long legs and long necks but instead with straight pointed bills.

About the time I was thinking that all I needed to complete the water bird bill trifecta that seemed to be unfolding before me was to see a fowl with an up-turned bill, I indeed saw one. Actually, I saw two examples in the shape of a pair of American Avocets. Having never seen this species before, I have to say they are both beautiful and odd. Their beauty stemmed from their graceful form, manner, and delicate black and white plumage. Long blue legs added a touch of color to the overall look. Being in winter feather, these birds lacked the rusty orange which normally covers the neck and back of the head. Their oddness comes from their unusual upturned beaks.

The beaks were very slender and, frankly, rather undersized and fragile looking (like a blade of black grass inserted into graceful snowbird). To add further to this peculiar trait, the females of the species have shorter and more extremely curved bills than those of the males. Male bills are gently upswept – a mirror image to that of the idbississ (?). The two birds before me on this morning were apparently females with radically up-turned beaks. The bend on these appendages looked un-natural, as if they ran into a wall or something.  The curve is sudden, rather than gradual.

I watched as they swept their unconventional bills back and forth in the water as they waded along in the ankle deep water. One nabbed a small silvery fish and downed it with one gulp. Later the pair took to preening. You’ll note in the above photo that the birds drop their wing and bring the leg over in order to scratch. After a brief session of itch relief and feather arrangement, they both settled into a nap. With their odd bills tucked back between their scapulars and bodies balanced upon one leg, they were again visions of symmetric beauty.

So, there you have it: Three birds with three differently oriented bills and all unified by their mutual presence on a desert marsh.

November 23, 2010

Holchoko, the Sleeper

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:58 am

Located within the city limits of Las Vegas, the Springs Nature Preserve encompasses a 180 acre section surrounding the original site where seeping water springs once flowed. This place attracted people long before there were slot machines and Wayne Newtons (and before Fig Newtons as well). Today nearly all of the ancestral springs are dried up, but the natural area and interpretive facility stand as a jewel tucked into city’s southwestern sprawl – the one case where you don’t have to leave Las Vegas in order to see something wild and real.

There are plenty of captive critters to see at the center – including Collared lizards, Kangaroo Rats, the fantastically named Vinagaroons (scorpion type beasts), and even a Black Widow spider but the one that really caught my eye was not a captive. While walking the nature trail, my eye was drawn to a peculiar rock laying on the ground beneath the cover a mesquite bush (I don’t know what kind of mesquite, mind you). It took a moment, but I finally resolved that the rock was actually a bird but it took a bit longer to figure out which end was which. It turned out to be a nocturnal Poor-will hiding in plain sight (see above and here).

Can you find him?

Poor-wills are the smallest members of the oddly named Nightjar family (also bizarrely called Goat Suckers by overly suspicious farmers). They share family ties with the likes of Whip-poor Wills and Chuck-will Widows – birds whose lives revolve around a penniless man name William. Nightjars are wide-mouthed night fliers that specialize in catching insects on the wing. During the day they employ their superbly camouflaged plumage to blend into the landscape.  Eastern Whip-poor Wills often perch lengthwise on a branch or fence rail, while western Poor Wills habitually select bare ground under small bushes as a daytime roost. My little Will was following all the rules.

Detail of head – Note “whiskers” around mouth

Detail of scapulars and back feathers

It is hard to figure out the topography of this bird due to its unusual proportions. The head and eyes are oversized compared to the body, the beak is tiny but the mouth itself is huge. When in roosting position the eyes are tightly closed and the head turned downward. A series of long stiff “whiskers” leading from the beak to the eye give away the edge of the mouth. The long cinnamon brown wing feathers stand out a bit (just a tiny bit) from the mottled gray and white body feathers. A few distinctive Poor-Will features are the small size (around 7-8 inches), the short tail covered by the wing tips and, although the field guides don’t make much note of it, the “x-shaped” blotches on the scapulars. If the bird was flying, the rounded wings and white throat patch could be added to this list. If the bird was calling, the “poor-will-ip” notes would be noted. But, this bird was going nowhere and saying nothing. It ignored me completely even though I was only a few feet away (although I am used to that).

Here is extreme southern Nevada the Common Poor Will is at the overlap zone between the summer breeding range and the permanent range. In other words, birds north of here tend to migrate south while those south of here tend to stay put all year. I assume this is a non-migratory fellow at home in the dry stony Sonoran desert. This roosting patch could be a regular hang out, although I have no way of knowing. I also assume that this Will aroused later in the day and took off into the night sky seeking what few insects were still flying about. But, in this I also could be wrong.

Poor Wills are one of the only birds proven to “hibernate” for long periods when food is scarce. Apparently where there is a Will there is a way (sorry, that was a “poor will” pun). Meriwether Lewis noted this in October of 1804 when he found a bird he mistakenly took for a Whip-poor-will that was cold and lifeless, yet very much alive. For some reason he skewered the poor thing with a knife and noted that it took several days for it to die because of the lack of bleeding! Dr. Edmund Jaeger found another one a hundred and sixty years later sleeping on the bare sand under a small bush in California. He determined, without running it through, that the bird was in a state of torpor with a lowered body temperature, heart rate, and slowed metabolism. He showed that the Poor Will is the only bird in the world that can truly enter true hibernation.

As usual, however, the “discovery” of this trait only confirmed what the S.W. Native Americans already knew. I believe it was the Hopi who called the Poor-will Holchocko – which meant “the Sleeping One.”

I left the Poor-will to his own devices. Returning to the resting spot just before I left, I found him still sleeping but saw that he had turned completely around in my absence. He was now facing north rather than south. Apparently he was just cat-napping and not deep sleeping. He was also a little easier to make out at this angle because he cast a long shadow in the late afternoon sun. Perhaps when I return to the southwest some day, I’ll get lucky and stumble upon another one of these fascinating nightjars. After all, they are quite common throughout their range and, according to the bible, the Poor Will always be with us.

November 19, 2010

Viva Las Vegas Baby!!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:08 am

Yes, I am here in Las Vegas and let me tell you, I am loving it. I am soaking – no, drinking -in all the wild life this place has to offer. When a hometown Monroe boy hits Sin City things are going to happen!  Why, I was on the strip and cruising for action as soon as my bags were unpacked. I had used up my quota of “gollie gees” and “I ain’t seen that befores” by the time my first half day was over.

My trip up the strip was a necessary part of getting out of this town as fast as I possibly could. I wanted to visit the natural desert country surrounding the city. Apparently,  there are people who actually come to Vegas just to gamble and  “take in the shows?” These folks are never far from a flashing façade or a slot machine and never close to anything approaching reality. In a town where dead performers can still perform and electricity is apparently free, life is fast, fake, and fleeting. Out in the wild desert country surrounding Vegas, however, life is timeless and very real.

Consider this blog as a letter to the folks back home. The reason people say “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is because nothing really important happens in this town. What happens in the country, well, that’s a different story and I feel compelled to tell you some of what happens there. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to write here because of all the wild places I have to visit (and the necessity of attending at least a few sessions of the naturalist conference I am here for – yes, you heard right). So, I will regale you with just a few impressions – none of which are ranked in any order of importance.

Just north and east of town lay the Sunrise Mountains – a desolate rocky tumble of ancient granite and red rock bluffs. Just a few feet off the road I was introduced to my first unique desert plant in the form of a gassy hydra. This plant, called a Desert Trumpet, is a member of the buckwheat family although it bears no resemblance to Spanky or Alfalfa. Because I am including pictures here, there is no need to imagine what this thing looks like, but picture a foot tall hydra (those microscopic multi-tentacled beasts). Trumpet Plants have stems which are inflated just below the point where all the branches come together. This swelling, which is hollow on the interior, is caused by a build up of Carbon Dioxide gas. I suppose plants injected with Beano would not display this trait.

In days gone by, the native Paiute would occasionally cut the stems and make temporary pipes and drinking straws. Gold prospectors sought out this plant as an indication of possible gold locations, although it turned out all the gold was in town! When these plants die, the tops fall off and leave the open-ended stems with flared tops looking like little upward pointing trumpets – thus the name.

O.K., so a gassy plant is not what you were expecting in Vegas so how about a critter with a glitzy billboard advertising it as “The World’s Smallest.” That is Vegas style.  This critter is a tiny butterfly called the Western Pigmy Blue. This must be a good time for these little guys because I saw a half dozen of them in the past few days in the Sonoran desert.  With a wingspan of only ½ inch, this colorful insect is certainly the smallest butterfly in North America and believed to be the smallest in the world. I took it for a fly fly (as opposed to a butter fly) the first time I spotted it flitting about the saltbrush. The pictures are very close up, so you’ll have to back up about fifteen feet to get a sense of real size.

The ghostly white clusters of Desert Holly stood out in stark contrast against the desert pavement. They made up for their small stature by their unusual appearance. The most salt tolerant of the salt plants in North America, this plant has highly reflective silvery leaves to reflect harsh sunlight. They are not really hollys but are instead members of the Goosefoot clan (a group represented by a common weed in our eastern gardens and byways).

I will introduce you to some of the cactii and a very unusual bird in another blog, but I should conclude with a particular beetle I met while wandering the open flats directly east of town. Hugging the shade of a tortured saltbush, a large black beetle caught my eye as I was bending down to photograph a Cholla Cactus. Unfortunately part of the spiny Cholla had inserted itself into my shin so I had to divert my attentions momentarily towards extraction before I could re-direct them towards the beetle. Called a Darkling or, in local terms, Pinacate Beetles, these fellows are endemic to the Sonoran Desert. Their common name derives from the Aztec name “pinacatl” which meant “black beetle.”

When the beetle detected me, it froze and locked its legs into a head stand. This behavior has also earned it the name of Clown Bug. I however, was the clown because I picked it up with a stick to get a closer look. After the fact, I learned that these beetles are also known as Stink Bugs because they squirt a noxious liquid spray when disturbed. I will not reveal whether I was sprayed or not because, well, in this case what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

November 14, 2010

That Terrible Hole

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:49 pm

The sound of an angry Chickadee is not far off the sound of a happy Chickadee but it’s different enough to cause notice. Admittedly it’s hard to imagine a truly angry or spiteful Chickadee period. It’s sort of like trying to imagine a “mean” sound out of a “Mr. Barky” chew toy. A ticked off chickadee – and yes they can get ticked-off – will tend to drop the “chicka” part of its call and put emphasis on the “dee dee”.  They do this with such gusto that the “dee dee” becomes a string of Chickadeean profanity sounding like “zee zee zee.” I mention this because for the past several weeks my backyard Chickadees have been acting particularly testy lately. Their actions have, in turn, incited the rest of the avian population to act the same way.

The center of all this unrest is a certain tree hole. Every now and then all the birds in the area focus their angst on an old flicker hole in the willow tree across the creek.  I was first alerted to this phenomenon early one afternoon as the sound of disturbed chickadees drifted down to my ears. Soon their “zee zeeing” was joined by some frantic White-breasted Nuthatch tooting, Cardinal chipping, and the hoarse barking of a Red-bellied Woodpecker. A Dark-eyed Junco soon joined the fray (you know it’s got to be good when these tiny gray and white mobsters show up – such vicious monsters, they are).This had all the makings of a classic mobbing by all the peeping squeaking residents from the land of unwanted toys. Approaching the spot I expected to see a murderous cat slinking through the underbrush or perhaps a Cooper’s Hawk whose perch location was just discovered. Instead, all the birds were directing their efforts towards the empty entrance of that foreclosed woodpecker hole.

One by one the birds approached the cavity and, like timid schoolchildren, cautiously peeked in. Then, apparently seeing something horrible within, they would dash away in a renewed fit of screaming. The Junco and Cardinal never dared to take a look. A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches added their tin horn vocalizations to the scene – something that surprised me because I didn’t know any of these guys were in the neighborhood. One these nuthatches even flew across the creek to investigate me during the height of the fracas. He landed a few inches over my head and stared me in the eye as if to say “either you is wid us or agin us…what will it be!”

Nothing ever appeared at the hole entrance during the time I watched. The whole scene was over in a minute or two as the mob lost interest.  Fortunately, I caught a bit of this action on video and you can watch it for yourself in this sequence (here).  The sound track alone will provide you with sounds from each of the above-mentioned birds.

This was not to be the only time this happened, however. I’ve been witness to it at least three more times over the past week and I believe it is still going on. The bird crowd has varied in composition, but always consists of the core of Chickadees, Juncos, Cardinals, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Last week it was a pair of Tufted Titmice that joined the protest and played peek-a-boo with the hole (see below). Each time, however, the afternoon revolt started with the chickadees, flared for a few anxious minutes, and then quietly ended.

I’m guessing that there is a Screech Owl hanging out in that dark place – like Winnie the Poo’s “Wol” except without the misspelled sign.  I’m also guessing that the chickadees must initially spot the owl whenever it shows itself at the entrance (as they are wont to do during the day). I also have no proof of this except for a very angry mob of otherwise cheerful birds. Even though I’ve tried on numerous occasions to catch a glimpse of whatever lives in that hole, I’ve yet to see a thing.

Real or imaginary, there is something dark and suspicious in that hole. Perhaps it is the hole itself that plays upon the minds of the little birds that flock about it. That dark void may open some small dark fearbox placed upon a narrow shelf within the tiny chickadee mind. The chickadees then whip the crowd into a frenzy (it is sooooooooooo easy to get a nuthatch hot and bothered). “The sky is falling’” says Chickadee Little, “and the beast within that hole is causing it. IT is the black hole which harbors evil. Expose it in the bright light of day, I tell you. Zee!”

You know, actually seeing the owl in the hole would kinda ruin all this fantasy. In true cinematic form, it is best to never see the beast at all. The hole itself is enough. Fear the hole.

November 11, 2010

Owl Be Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:22 pm

One can only wonder, but the experience of an owl mist netted, banded, measured, and weighed must be something like an alien abduction. One minute they are flying wide eyed and confident in the comfort of darkness and the next thing they know they are being probed inside the confines of some strange bright place. Then, with pupils reduced to pin pricks, they are flung back into the night. I can only speculate as to the owl’s demeanor, but I can say with confidence that my human view of owl banding is one of fascination – so much so that I invited myself to experience it once again. I guess I would be the slender inquisitive alien in this scenario (although I am not especially slender, I am inquisitive and have large eyes).

Last week I joined Tom Carpenter, a life time bird bander and long-time acquaintance, on one of his owl banding expeditions. Tom was seeking Saw-whet owls at Lake Erie Metropark. Every year he manages to set up his nets for at least a few nights each season. The chill November air usually brings with it a silent invasion of tiny Saw-whets from the high north. This movement of owls can be impressive – especially during periodic population booms. By all accounts, this is one of those boom years.

Tom had set up earlier in the week and enjoyed phenomenal success. The combined total for the two nights was 26 owls. He had to occasionally shut the lure tape off just to catch up.  His total would have been much higher, save for the fact that a local Great-horned Owl started to pick off the micro owls one by one (there is no rule among owls regarding this, in case you are wondering). The massive owl moved in about midnight and killed two net-ensnared Saw-whets before Tom decided to stop for the night. “I had to stop,” he said, “because there was no way to stop that Great-horned from killing more birds. I’m sure if he hadn’t arrived, I’d of gotten a lot more Saw-whets.”

Knowing this, I was anxious to get in on some of the action. To tell the truth, I was secretly hoping that the Great-horned Owl would show up again. When we gathered at sunset later in the week, Tom was ready with a pair of large net traps (respectively baited with a live pigeon and a Starling) to lure and detain the big owl. The “flying tiger” didn’t show, however. The lure birds were amazingly calm within their little cages and probably not disappointed at the lack of action.

Fortunately, several Saw-whets and a Screech Owl were captured while I was there on that third night. The basic mist net setup was arranged with two nets set at right angles to each other. A recorded Saw-whet call was broadcast into the night from the inside angle (listen to the first part of this recording). Curious owls would approach the call and find themselves entangled.  The “alien” abductor – Tom – would check the net every 15 minutes or so, grab the bird and take it inside for examination and banding.

The first Saw-whet in was at 7:45 pm. As is typical for netted owls, the creature passively hung upside down like prey in a spider web. It didn’t start struggling until we arrived on the scene (see here). “This one’s banded,” Tom announced (I would say he did this “excitedly” expect for the fact that Tom never allows his excitement to reflect in his voice). I was excited due to the fact that two of his birds from earlier in the week were also banded. One, a young bird, was banded a month earlier in Ville-Marie, Quebec (well north of Algonquin Provincial Park) while the other had been banded a year ago in Long Point, Ontario.

Saw-whet Owl Foot

He stuffed this bird into an orange juice tube and we took it inside to measure the tail, get the weight, spread the wing for aging (I’ll explain in a minute), and then read the band. Unfortunately, the Canadian banders use a half-sized band with very small numbers on it. It took the best efforts of two middle aged guys to squint and adjust glasses before we eventually read those minute numbers off of that minute feathered leg sticking out of the tube (see here). Between us, we determined that it probably read “1014-15332” (not sure about the 5, but what the heck). Tom e-mailed me the next day to inform me that this bird had been banded at Holiday Beach, Ontario (a location directly across the Detroit River from where we were) only a week earlier.

Being abducted twice within a week explained, after the fact, why this little fellow was in such a sour mood as he was being handled. Most owls pop their beaks as a protest, but Saw-whets are typically mild mannered and passive. This bird was popping away like a typewriter the whole time (listen to the popping sound on the second half of this recording).

The second bird in was a Screech Owl around 9 pm. This was Carpenter’s first Screech of the season, but it wasn’t unusual to get these owls when setting up for Saw-whets. We could see something red hanging out of the owl’s mouth as it dangled from the net. This turned out to be the birds tongue!  It had inadvertently bit it while struggling but didn’t realize it (see here). I woulda thought, being a Screech Owl and all, that this bird would have been doing some screeching after having just bit his own tongue – but no. Tom pried the beak open and allowed the pink “worm” to slip back into its proper place.

Unlike the earlier Saw-whet, the Screech Owl took offered absolutely no resistance (resistance is futile according to the alien Borg). I would say he achieved a Zen-like level of peace (see below) and closed his eyes during banding (see here), wing examination (see here), and weighting. Only when offered the chance to fly away after the procedure did he finally open up his eyes and drift silently into the dark (see below).

What turned out to be the final owl of the night, another Saw-whet hit the net at 10:30 pm. While the earlier Saw-whet and Screech where young-of-the-year birds born earlier in the season (entering the books as “Hatching year” birds), this bird was at least into its second year. One way to determine age is to look at the wing feathers. The old feathers are replaced from the edges of the wing in or, more technically, from the first primary on down and the last secondary on up. This Saw-whet (much calmer than the first by the way – see here) revealed a clear set of old cinnamon brown feathers that contrasted clearly with the newer darker feathers (see below).

Right wing of Saw-whet showing old & new feathers

Since this last bird was un-banded it was gifted with band number 664-78841 before release (see below). Tom used one of the full-sized bands, I might add, that had EASY TO READ NUMBERS on it. I hope you Canadians out there are listening because all the Saw-whets coming our way are originating from your country, don’t you know. Give us weak-eyed Americans a break. Tom, and possibly myself, will be back owling yet again before this season is over.

November 8, 2010

In Search of the Wild Asparagus

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:51 pm

Although it may not seem a likely topic for a nature blog, I would like to briefly focus your autumnal attentions to asparagus. There is a wild side to this familiar domestic crop beloved by all but small children, dogs, and people who don’t belove it.  Asparagus often goes on the lamb. They jump the fences, and flee the confines of organized agriculture, to become feral residents of our weedy roadsides.

There, among the lush green of spring and summer, the wild asparagii blend in and go undetected by those who would decapitate them. Safe from prosecution they grow beyond harvest size and branch out into leafy mini-shrubs (the vegetative equivalent to growing a scruffy beard). They flower, fruit, and die back just like their wild neighbors. On extremely still nights, the scream of the wild asparagus can be heard – beckoning back to their ancestral haunts in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In autumn, however, this anonymous and savage way of life becomes threatened.

The tall asparagus clusters turn a bright orangish yellow in the fall – marking their locations against the background as clearly as if they were set on fire. They can be spotted by even the most disinterested of passersby (see beginning photo and above). Now is the time, my friends, to mark their presence because this standout color phase continues well into November. You can return to their spot next summer and harvest an unclaimed crop of succulent asparagus shoots. There will be a price for doing so, but that explanation can wait a moment.

Most of us are familiar with the appearance of cultivated asparagus, but many don’t recognize it in the feral state – looking more like yellow tumbleweeds than shoot crops. They become shrubby plants adorned with soft needle-like leaves and red berries. The fruits are poisonous for us, but highly edible for wildlife, which explains how they flee their garden boundaries in the first place (as seeds within bird poo, if you must know).

Even if you don’t end up marking these wild spots, you can still claim the right to shout out, as you are driving by, “Hey look, there’s another patch of wild asparagus” (if there are no passengers in the car, then you can yell this statement even louder). Should you choose to imbibe in the fresh wild shoots next season, the yellow color of the autumn version of the plant can serve to remind you that asparagus has an interesting chemical property.

Asparagus – both wild and tame – makes your urine smell funny. Oddly enough, not everyone can detect this unusual smell because of genetic issues, but all asparagus eaters are stinky pee-ers! As an early 18th century Englishman once put it: “asparagus causes a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine as everybody knows.” Now dear reader you know and can now add this fact, as well as those mentioned previously in this blog, to your list of useless trivia.

November 4, 2010

Buckeye Invasion

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:49 pm

I feel now that the killing frosts have come, I can say that the Buckeye invasion is over for another year. I’m not talking nuts here or those folks who scream “I O” whenever “O H” is chanted (or those few who combine traits of both). No, I’m talking butterfly here – as in Buckeye Butterflies. They invade Michigan every fall but their stay here is all too short.

I am not happy to see them go, for they are arguably one of the prettiest of North American butterflies. Adorned with peacock spots and bright, but not gaudy, colors they are classic members of the brush-footed clan. This species is frequently used as the poster child to represent all butterflies because they are so drop-dead gorgeous. If you’ve never seen one before then take a look at these photos (below and here) and see if you don’t agree with me.

I can’t remember a time in recent history when I saw so many of these beauties flying about S.E. Michigan. I look every year but don’t find them every year. Whenever I do find one, it was always in the fall. This fall I saw Buckeyes in great abundance no matter where I looked. Everywhere from St. Louis, Missouri to Dayton, Ohio and all parts in-between, they were seen flashing their beauty about. I suspect they had a good year throughout the eastern U.S. This statement may only be a hunch, but I feel like they were probably abundant back in Notre Dame too (a hunch back of Notre Dame, you could say).

Buckeye Butterflies undergo annual migrations as their summer populations swell into late summer. They are basically a southern butterfly that flies between May and October. In good years they can produce up to three broods and each successive hatch is imbibed with increasing doses of wanderlust.  “Papa was a rolling stone,” they chant, “wherever he laid his hat was his home.” Unlike other migratory creatures, these insects actually move north in the autumn to place their collective hats on new ground. Usually these expansions end in death (“and when he died…” O.K, I’ll stop) because they can’t survive harsh winters. On occasion, temporary northern colonies will become established as they recently did in parts of Ontario.

This season was a special one and we’ll see if any of the northern voyageurs will “take” in S.E. Michigan. Nearly all of our regional Buckeyes would have flown in as adults. If the evidence on trail post No. 4 was any indication, however, they might literally be hanging around for awhile. A mystery butterfly chrysalis hanging on a trail podium (see above and here) turned out to be that of a Buckeye. This superbly camouflaged chrysalis was evidence enough that at least one generation of this species was locally produced this year. Fortunately, a return trip to the podium a month later revealed that the creature successfully emerged (see empty casing below). We had, and maybe still have, a native born son in our midst.

Buckeyes overwinter as adults, so it is hoped that this freshly emerged butterfly found suitable shelter before the last bout of hard freezes hit. As I said before, most do not make it into the following spring and this one will probably require an obituary as well. Never-the-less, I will be looking early next year for something I’ve never seen before – a Michigan born Buckeye in the month of May.

November 1, 2010

A Murderous Migration

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:23 pm

The sight of hundreds of crows filling the gray morning sky on Sunday morning should not have surprised me. It was Hallowe’en day, after all, when all manner of dark and suspicious things are supposed to occur (and Crows are both dark and suspicious birds). A “murder” of crows would be a natural part of the script. But, I was mildly surprised. Having already witnessed the very same thing only two days before, I was delighted to be privy to a repeat performance. Yes, there are many dark and suspicious birds on the move in S.E. Michigan.

Crows are unusual in that they are both migratory and non-migratory in nature. Typically they are cold hardy birds which do not shy away from winter conditions. In fact, as scavengers and intelligent opportunists, they actually thrive in the harsh northern climes of winter. The Lower Detroit River region is a winter gathering point for crows. But, local populations – especially those from the Canadian Shield area – do seek slightly warmer climes (with an emphasis on the word “slightly”). They engage in a population shift ranging form a few hundred to a few thousand miles. Southern crows are much more laid back and so they don’t bother to migrate at all.

That these migrating birds were Canadians was evidenced not only from their Northeastern flight origin but also by their slight accent (“Caw Caw-eh”). For the most part the flyover was silent, however. On both days, the crows streamed overhead like a living river. The flow direction of the flock changed course like a rivulet running down a windshield, but it rarely broke up. At the Detroit River crossing the flocks often appeared on the horizon like a haphazard cluster of blown autumn leaves before narrowing to a column. Fifteen miles south, over my yard in Monroe County, the birds stuck to a tighter riverine pattern.

I did attempt some type of quantification. I mean, saying that there was a “bunch” of crows just wouldn’t cut it. “Lots,” “Scads,” or a “Butt Load” wouldn’t cut it either (the latter statement depends on the size of the butt involved and therefore is very inexact). A “murder” is an old fashioned way to refer to a crow grouping, and only by extending this to “a serial murder of crows” could I come to a proper description of the flocks that flew overhead. This, however, would be even more confusing. So, I did attempt to block out portions of the sky for a time and count the individuals flying past. On two occasions I came up with 200 plus birds per minute. At times the combination of distant birds and those flying over at tree top height made it difficult to focus (see below, here, & here). This explains why my other attempts were abandoned in a flurry of Old English phrasing.

It is probably impossible to put a figure on these migration events, but it is easily involved tens of thousands of birds. In other words, a butt load!  Hawk counters at the Detroit River Hawkwatch sight, although focusing primarily on birds of prey, noted the first day’s flight as exceeding 15,000 birds. The Hallowe’en flight was certainly larger than this by a factor of 100 or so.  It is interesting to note that crows have proven themselves able to count. If we knew the language, and the proper French-Canadian inflection, we could probably ask them to account for themselves. Unfortunately, because their kind often proves smarter than we are, we dare not ask out of jealousy.

Whether you like crows or dislike them, the sight of so many of them at one time was an awe inspiring sight. They are native birds who have suffered from the effects of West Nile virus in the recent past. It is good to see at least one component of their population thriving. Oh, by the way, for those of you who are irritated by my spelling of Hallowe’en in this piece I am simply using the old style spelling – the kind found in the type of books which refer to a grouping of crows as a “murder”.

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