Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 31, 2011

Watching the ‘Bergs Go By

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:43 pm

One of the last rites of winter – perhaps the definitive ending – occurs well after the calendar says spring. The winter ice accumulation at the southern end of Lake Huron north of the Blue Water Bridge is called the ice bridge. When this ice pack finally breaks up and flushes down the St. Clair and into the Detroit River it is safe to say that winter is finally over. Traditionally this event begins in March and is completed by the second week of April. Some years it jams up and causes massive flooding while in other years it gently relents. Well, this year’s bridge has finally collapsed (gently, I understand) and the final pieces are now making their journey south to Lake Erie.

Late last week, portions of the lower Detroit mouth were jammed with a vast field of pancake ice (see here a view toward Sturgeon Bar Island). Constant grinding and rotating along the 60 some mile route turned the angular blocks into circular chunks with ridges of ground ice at their edges. This was Huron ice on its way to becoming Lake Erie water. I don’t think there really is a need to explain how the term “pancake ice” came about is there? Now the flow is more spaced out and the last lazy chunks are drifting by at the easy pace of a few miles an hour (see here).

Perhaps the best place to view this current procession of mini-bergs (and say good riddance to winter) is from the boardwalk at Bishop Park in Wyandotte (at a point about mid-way on the Detroit). From the railing the view across to the Canadian isle of Fighting Island the glassy river is dotted with moving white forms. I was joined in this effort by a pair of Ring-billed Gulls (see above). Some of their cohorts were bumming rides on a few of the passing ice platforms (see below) or busily snatching gizzard shad from the waters.

It was a sunny cold day (in fact the kind of day you’d mistake for winter if the ice flows weren’t flowing before you) when I shared the space with these two small gulls a few days ago. The gulls paid me little heed and obviously were used to large two-legged mammals. They briefly eyed my pockets for hand outs, but seeing no offering emerge they went about their daily business. At the time the task at hand was resting.

Ring-bills are one of our most common gulls. Because they are so numerous it is easy to dismiss them as water pigeons or land carp. Up close, however, on a bright day adjacent to their native habitat (as opposed to the parking lot at McDonald’s) they are delicate and subtle. In fact, they seem to go well with the shiny white ice ‘bergs floating nearby. Their small size, yellow feet, and ringed beak (see here) separate them from larger gulls such as the pink-footed Herring Gulls or the similar-sized black-headed Bonapartes.  One detail that escapes all but the closest observer are the fiery red fleshy eye rings (see detail at the beginning) and the colorful mouth linings.

It takes three years for these birds to achieve the adult coloration of this pair. Before that time they have the speckling and dinginess of youth.  As adults, I suspect these snowy white birds will be nesting in the huge colony along the rocks on the east side of Fighting Island. That time will not be for another month or so, but they are already in pairing mode. This point was driven home, not only by the fact that they were “with” each other but by their reaction to another pair that landed on the light post next to them.

The potential rival pair were not welcomed at the ‘berg watch as I was. Both “resident” birds immediately rose their heads up into the air and started a furious bout of cackling. It started with a lowering of the head followed by an upward toss ending with the open beak pointing nearly straight up. Eventually the calls ended in a choking pose as shown in the picture below. Note that the other bird had its head straight down over the railing – looking for  all the world like it was barfing overboard.

This type of behavior is an example of an aggressive call meaning basically “back off Jack.” The un-welcome pair responded in kind, but they got the message. They lifted aloft and sought out another un-claimed piece of railing. Soon this type of thing will happen all the time as the colony birds stake and maintain their spots in the crowded nesting ground just across the river.  The Ring-bills know that their time is coming. It begins with the passage of ice.

March 28, 2011

Sap, Syrup, Sugar and the Little Happy Label Squirrel

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:43 pm

You may have doubted my sincerity regarding an earlier assertion on my part that I would bottle up my “Squirrel Dew” product. Come on, you remember – that pre-syrup tonic drink made from the sap of the Red Maple. You’ll recall that I was getting all excited about tapping a maple tree after a long hiatus. I was feeling all nostalgic etc. and decided to market my “new” idea. O.K., if none of this rings a bell then you’ll just have to go back a few blog entries and play catch up (and discover why this idea was hardly a new one).

Anyway, by looking at the beginning photograph, you can see that I was serious. “Squirrel Dew – Nature’s Own Tonic” says the label (I thought of that by myself). Pictures don’t lie (with the possible exception of those old Soviet group photos where there is an air-brushed gap in the ranks). Shame on you for doubting me so, comrade.  My first bottle of product is now ready for the store shelves and if I say so myself – which is the only way this can be said given that I am myself – it looks and tastes pretty darned good.  Yes, I have a small supply problem but let’s not get all technical and business like here. Do you really want to put a damper on that optimistic little label squirrel? I think not.

Actually, I have to admit that I created the supply issue. I turned my remaining stock of “Squirrel Dew” into Syrup and Maple Candy. But, that is a tiny moot point in a big moot world.

It’s very good syrup. Making this stuff on the stovetop is deceptively easy, however. I literally simmered my pot ‘o “Squirrel Dew” until it reached a temperature of 219 degrees F.  That was it. When the liquid reached the magic syrup stage it began to froth up into bubbly amber foam, so I could have done this thing without the candy thermometer. I bottled the brew – about a half gallon in all – and felt warm all over while doing it.  But, I ended up producing only enough to feel all “homey” about it and not enough to get all “generous” about it. It was a limited run.  I mean, if this “Squirrel Dew” idea takes off then the “one man – one tree” syrup thing should do well also. Think of it. In the future this syrup will be made available in extremely limited supplies of, say, two regular half pint bottles and a Mason Jar. I can sell it for a few hundred dollars each along with a complementary pack of pancake batter. Quality not quantity is the issue here. Homemade vs. Big Production Sugar Bush.

When I turned a good measure of this rare syrup into maple candy, I further reduced my marketable stock. Again, the process was fairly simple. The syrup was simmered further until reaching a temperature of around 251 degrees F.  The only tricky part was making sure the stuff was constantly stirred and that the pan was sufficiently tipped to make sure the bulb of the candy thermometer remained immersed.  When the proper temperature was reached it was then a matter of pouring out the creamy mass before it started to crystallize. In the end I made a big handful of candy which I originally figured could have gone on the open (legal) market at about $300. I briefly considered funding the “Squirrel Dew” business with a few night trips to a few seedy joints in order to sell the stuff at black market prices.

Afterall, maple sugar, a.k.a. candy, is the traditional maple product originally produced by the Woodland Indians. Syrup and “Squirrel Dew” needs bottling and refrigeration at some point, but maple sugar has the potential to last for a very long time in un-refrigerated conditions. The natives packed this treasured product into birch bark Makuks for use throughout the rest of the year. They would toss some of the warm dollops of sugar out onto the snow or pour the rich brown slurry into duck beaks for the children to relish. My candy was poured into plastic molds and greased sheets, but the results were the same: Pure goodness straight from the trunk of a tree. Maple Candy is really what this whole thing is about. It is far better than any illegal product around. Unfortunately my maple candy didn’t last very long (this due to the fact that it tasted so doggoned good and not due to any preservation issues).

Now that my 2011 maple season is over, I need to make some choices. I have a few pints of priceless “one man – one tree” syrup left in the frig. I have three pieces of candy left…oops, no…make that two, one….  Alright, I do have a few pints of syrup left. Do I water this stuff down like a bootlegger and cut it into a gallon of “Squirrel Dew” or do I market it as “Uno Senior, Uno Arborvitae” Syrup or something like that?

Choices need to be made but I might just wait until next year and let this thing stew for a while. There’s a bright shiny future out there for the Little Happy Label Squirrel.

March 23, 2011

Snake Spaghetti

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:57 pm

I suppose I could blame it on the Short-eared Owl – the second one that is. I originally had no intention of walking that extra section of dike at Pointe Mouillee after having trekked a good three miles of it already. I had flushed a Short-eared earlier and assumed that was my one and only chance (first one I’ve seen in over ten years). Yes, it was a beautiful March morning and the temperatures were touching the 60’s but still I was due home. Besides, I watched this bird vanish into the reedbeds along the far western portion of the marsh. It was well out of reach. When I unexpectedly flushed another Short-eared along what was to be the “return” portion of my journey, I abandoned all plans and opted to follow this one the best I could manage.  This elusive fowl, a daytime hunter whose “ears” are so short that they are practically non-existent, was a rare find (although now the second bird in only 30 minutes time). I could not afford to pass up the opportunity to flush it at a point where I expected it to be.

When this bird took off, I snapped an instinctive shot for the sake of confirming what I thought I saw (see here). It circled well out over the mouth of the Huron River and temporarily joined with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls for a few lazy circles over the water. It then broke off and, with moth-like wing pumps, descended to the rocks lining a distant portion of one of the many branching dike sections.  I doubled back and carefully approached the area (after a ten minute walk). This time I was ready, so I snuck along, and stopped every few minutes to peer into the rocks. Unfortunately, after much peering and having gone well past the anticipated location without success, I realized that I had been duped. Either the critter had re-flushed long before I arrived or it smarted up and remained tight among the rocks in spite of my peer pressure.

I have always maintained that such events – like letting yourself get sidetracked, for instance – are never a waste of time. More often than not the unplanned detour leads to new discoveries.  I was not disappointed in this regard.  When I turned around to walk back, a swimming muskrat caught my eye as it exited from one of the large corrugated culverts. When I stopped to watch it, my eyes were forced to re-focus on the bank just above the culvert. There, the moving ground gradually formed itself into a pile of writhing snakes . I had stumbled upon a Garter Snake Ball.

In short, a Garter Snake Ball is a breeding behavior in which masses of horny male Eastern Garters seek to mate with a single female.  The guys, fresh out of hibernation themselves, gather about the female dens and wait for her to get up. As soon as she emerges, they are all over her. She is “unfresh” and so are they – both parties still covered with the stale skin of a winter’s nap, but they go about it like a Roman orgy. I, of course, have never seen a Roman Orgy, but I’ve read about them and I think this must capture the look, if not the feel, of one. Take a look at the video here and see if you don’t agree.

Please don’t get on the guys for being so …so… mobbish. They can’t help themselves. The female not an innocent party in this affair. She only has a week or so to get this job done and she’s not in the mood for waiting around.  She exudes irresistible pheromones (Purple Passion Perfume) through her skin with the deliberate intention of eliciting this mass reaction.  All the local males will try to mate with her as if they were in a drugged state (which, in a way, they are). In this case about nine or so glassy-eyed guys were glomming onto the larger female as if she were magnetized. Their wiggling tails, the location of their vents and male organs, were seeking the primary target at the other end of the femme fatale.

In most cases, one of the males will be able to join vents with the female and deposit his seed within a matter of minutes. Once this is accomplished, the successful male will leave a “mating plug” – a cork you could say – to seal her off from other lovers. This plug exudes a pheromone which negates the female’s perfume and causes all the other males to flee town. It renders the gal “undesirable for further consideration” and the game is over.

I’m not sure how long this particular breeding ball had been going on before I arrived, but the party did break up momentarily when the female spotted me. She moved back toward the water and the whole mass tumbled into the drink. The effect was like a cold shower and the snakes shot off in all directions as they sought land. Once she regained terra firma, however, the mass re-formed for a second go around (see above) but it was without the earlier enthusiasm. Perhaps one of the suitors had hit the mark and his cologne was putting a damper on the party or her perfume had washed off. Either way, the gang dispersed.  Still, the males were plenty perky (see below).

I noted that one of the snakes had a wonderful red stripe along the side (see below). He stood out from the crowd when it was still in the mosh pit stage. Eastern Garters tend to be a variable species and one with a red stripe will occasionally show up in eastern populations. Further north and west, there is a sub-species called the Red-sided Garter in which all the specimens have this prominent red siding. It is worth noting that the Red-sided Garters of southern Manitoba far outdo our easterners in the art of playing ball. Each May, the tens of thousands of the snakes emerge from their dens near Narcisse and literally cover the ground with a living mass of love spaghetti.

As for myself, I was plenty happy with my loving spoonful of spaghetti on the Mouillee dikes.

March 20, 2011

A Super Full Woodcock Moon

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:18 pm

There are precious few opportunities to combine a woodcock dance with a Super Full Moon. Sure, Woodcocks dance every Spring, and full moons happen all the time, but you can count on one hand – possibly using only a few fingers- the number of times a Super Full Moon will coincide with the spring mating season. I decided to deliberately pair the two events last night because it seemed like the thing to do.

Yesterday evening (Mar. 19) saw the closest association of the moon and earth since 1993. Since the moon’s orbit is elliptical, its distance from us will vary considerably over time and the seasons. The furthest point is called the apogee by astronomers. The closest point is called the perigree. Yesterday, that perigree distance was reduced to only 221,566 miles away – that’s 26,465 miles closer than usual! According to the experts the moon would appear 30% brighter and 14% bigger. They call it a Super Full Moon. According to the non-experts, such as myself, that chunk of cheese would look like a mighty big pizza pie to the eye.

In contrast to the bigness of the above described astronomical event, the woodcock’s dance performance is a subtle event bordering on non-event status.  A Super Full Woodcock is simply a bird that is chock full of worms, but he does not glow nor is his increased girth easier to see in the moonlight.  The apogee and perigree of a woodcock’s dance flight can be measured only in the tens of feet as opposed to tens of thousands of miles.  Still, I was determined to get the best that the moon and the marsh bird could offer.

I should first describe the woodcock’s typical spring performance. The love sick males begin their routines as soon as they arrive in mid to late March (recall the ill-fated woodcock I profiled a few blogs ago for a description of the bird). They wait until 20 minutes after sunset to begin. First out is a series of “peents” – nasal insect-like calls issued as the birds strut about on the ground.  Second, the birds launch into the air and engage in a spiral flight up into the dusky night sky. This phase is accompanied by a whistling sound created by wind rushing through a set of three specialized flight feathers on the leading edge of each wing (see detail below). The final act is a controlled leaf-like drop back to the earth with a fanfare of chirping. The whole performance is meant to melt the tiny hearts of silently watching female woodhens, but it is a difficult one for humans to track.

I went out two nights ago to seek a place where I could find calling woodcocks. I ended up at the Pointe Mouillee Game Area and was fortunate enough to see a few silhouetted birds whirring past on their way to the dance grounds (any low wet area will do). A few faint “peents” and at least one whistling flight was heard but these faint sounds were flooded out by the Tsunami of sound created by a million chorus frogs performing their mating songs. The frogs were so incredibly noisy that I called out “Shut the F— Up!” (please fill in the blank with “rog”) in a failed attempt to create a brief window of quiet. The rising moon was a great promotion for the following night’s event, but Pointe Mouillee would not do – it was too D—– noisy.

On the night of the super moon, I stuck closer to home and ventured over to a large neighborhood park at sunset.  I must admit that I always feel like some sort of creep when I enter a park at night. If someone should report me (some old guy with his lights out and parking in the farthest corner from the road), I would have to tell the arriving officer that I was looking for Wood Cocks. I don’t ever want to have to say that. Fortunately this was a fairly remote neighborhood park with no adjacent houses or peering eyes.

There was no sign of the moon or investigating officers when the first woodcocks started to “peent” in the distance, but since there were no Chorus Frogs in the neighborhood I was happy. The night was chilly and I feared that my shaking bones would register on my recorder. The woodcocks were not especially exuberant either. They’d “peent” a few times then stop. One or two twittered invisibly into the sky but they waited until it was too dark to see. My recording attempts were continually frustrated.

When the copper red giant moon peaked over the treeline at 8:20 pm, my frustrations were washed away in the dim glow.  I tracked it for ten minutes as it rose higher into the sky – changing from an oblong orange ellipse to a clear white ball. The woodcocks had fallen silent for a while, as if taking in the moonrise event, but for one golden half minute two birds engaged in a “peent off” and I got my recording (You can hear the results here). You can’t hear my shaking bones, nor can you hear the distant sounds of a barking dog or of a moaning train. All superfluous sounds went dead for a few seconds under the spell of that Super Moon.

As a woodcock recording this is an average attempt because it doesn’t reflect the whistling flight. Someday, perhaps, I will capture that part of the flight on my recorder but it will have to be on a regular night under a regular moon.

March 15, 2011

Goose English on Ice

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

Although almost all of the snow has finally melted off the landscape, most of the inland ponds and marshes are still locked in a cover of ice. The pussy willows are expressing springtime at their tips but are still locked into winter at their watery bases. So, until this last vestige of winter ice finally yields to the sun, the locals just have to wait.

Aquatic creatures such as geese are forced to walk on the water until swimming becomes a viable option.  Canada Geese are not ones to patiently wait for anything. They are already carrying on as if things were already in a liquid state – staking out nesting territories and mates just the same. Late February to early March is the pair bonding season for geese and they are full of overflowing emotions this time of year.  Behavioral interactions that would normally take place while swimming are happening in full body view on a cold level playing field.

Canada Geese are hardly worth the expense of too much digital ink, but you can’t ask for a better bird to demonstrate body English. Actually, I’m pretty sure that they don’t speak English, and that their bodies don’t either, but it’s not hard to translate some of this stuff into our tongue. I’ll just call it Goose English. With their long expressive necks, large size, and wide vocal skills they can’t hide their feelings well.  And, because they are so common, they are easily observed. Let’s not look a gift goose in the mouth.

You can break down goose English into a few body moves and some nine different calls. For the sake of this discussion I’ll stick to the body English and sum up the calls into “honk, a-honk, and hiss.” In short you have the head/neck pump, the head bobble, the extended neck and – of course, the attack. The honks accompany all these actions except the extended neck which tends to be a hissing or even a silent move.

I watched a pair of birds recently at Crosswinds Marsh that were in fine form.  When first encountered they were placidly napping, along with several other widely spaced geese (as well as a farm goose that joined the flock a few years ago). Heads tucked back between their shoulders and balancing improbably on one leg, they were the picture of complacency.  That was until three other geese landed on the ice nearby. These birds arrived in a flurry of honking and slid wildly across the ice for a few feet as they landed. Our sleeping birds immediately raised their heads high and turned to meet the arrivals.

Both sets of birds started to bob their heads up and down. The sweep of the head pump brought their beaks down to the level of their chest and back up again. All were agitated as if to repeatedly say “oh yeah” to each other without actually issuing any challenge.  This patch of ice weren’t big enough for all concerned, however, and eventually our pair started to walk.

While walking, the two – especially the one I took to be the gander – performed a head bobble. This can best be described as agitated honking accompanied by head shaking in the manner of shedding water after a bath. This action accentuates the white chin patch and signals something to the opposition, but what exactly is not known. Bobbling appears to be a decision making mode similar to one scratching their head while thinking and saying “why, I’m gonna…I’m gonna have to… do something about this…” In other words, bobbling geese are thinking geese.

Soon enough, after only a few seconds, our pair made their decision to charge the interlopers. At this point they lowered their heads so that their necks were parallel to the ice and charged the other geese. Loud hissing turned into a flurry of feathers and honking as the birds met up with the opposition (who decided to flee this onslaught without delay).

When all was over, our pair returned to their spot of cold ground, and celebrated the victory. Heads high and wide mouthed, the gander stuck out his tongue at the world like a Kiss fan (see above). All quickly returned to peace and they resumed their one-legged pose. Of course the whole scene was repeated as soon as the next flight arrived.

Now, you will notice that the farm goose (A Graylag Goose) was sleeping next to this pair of geese. He has somehow bonded with the Canadas and has mentally become one. He occasionally joins them in some of these scuffles, but seems to ignore most of them. Oddly enough he is ignored in turn by our aggressive pair. I’m guessing this fellow is affectionately called the “big guy” by the natives. Unfortunately, because this bird speaks in heavily accented Hungarian tones (due to his European roots) he’s not well understood by anyone.

March 11, 2011

Squirrel Dew

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:27 pm

This is the time of year when broken maple twigs begin to weep. Their outflow of sap will freeze overnight and form pale sugar-sickles (see above) that catch the morning light. Because only the water content of the sap actually freezes, the sugar is naturally concentrated at the tip and the sickles make for a refreshing treat. Unfortunately, they are fleeting creations that melt with the slightest prompting by the sun. These sickles probably provided the original idea for the human processing of Maple Syrup (apologies to Nanabozo). Sugar sickle season is maple sugaring season.

The traditional joys of the sugar season – tapping the trees, boiling off the sap, and breathing in the billowing sweet steam of the sugar shack, should be experienced by all.  I am not a big time sugaring guy. I have tapped a few trees in my time and produced my share of stovetop syrup. I have breathed in the steam coming off a canning kettle and nearly destroyed our wallpaper in the process. I have further processed my syrup into maple candy. So, I am vetted in the process, but beyond that I can claim no special knowledge. It should be said, however, that the process is not an especially complicated one. You drill a hole in a Sugar or Red Maple, tap in a spile to direct the flow of sap, collect the watery sap, and then boil off the sap until you achieve the syrup stage.  It is a magical process but not a mysterious one.

After a hiatus of nearly 15 years, I decided to again tap a maple – a Red Maple to be exact (see above and here). From the second the auger bit into the tree, it started to weep the sweet tears of late winter. So far the tree has yielded about 10 gallons of sap. I’ve yet to turn any of this into syrup. To date, all of this production has been rendered into a wonderful elixir I call Syrup Tea. Rather than finish everything off, I stop the simmering at a stage well before it becomes syrup. At this point it has a rich golden color (see below) and tastes, well, like sweet elixir. A small cup– taken cold – is a taste experience unlike any other. Heck, it might even be good for you but I don’t care about that. It can’t be bad for you. In another life I’d be marketing this stuff under the label of “Squirrel Dew.”

The above  title is actually an old prohibition word for hooch and refers to homebrew. While the old-fashioned stuff was highly alcoholic and sometimes deadly, this natural version has none of the side effects. It is as pure as it can get (actually chock full of chemicals, but good chemicals). The idea of drinking concentrated sap (pre-syrup) is not my own, it is one inspired by creatures such as Sap-suckers, Mourning Cloaks, Red Admirals and the like who lick tree sap. Perhaps the earliest and most active seasonal practitioners of the art are squirrels. Thus, it is appropriate to call my product Squirrel Dew.

Red Squirrels are especially prone to drinking sap.  These spritely rodents definitely have a sweet tooth. They will take advantage of natural seepages such as sugar sickles but will also deliberately maintain sap wells by chewing away bark. Freshly chewed bark, complete with tooth marks, are especially visible this time of year because of the cascade of wet bark below them (see here). In other words, they reduce the art of maple sugaring its most basic level: wound tree, allow sap to leak out, let heat of the sun concentrate sap, and enjoy.  They are not able to cook the stuff into syrup and have no abilities to handle pancake batter, so they just drink the Squirrel Dew and go on with their little lives.

Squirrels will even take this whole thing one step further. They do not restrict themselves to maple trees. I have often watched as our neighborhood reds lick sugary sap off of the upper twigs of Black Walnut tree, for instance (see below). These wounded twigs are glistening with sticky wetness and the squirrels will passionately lick it up as they cling to the narrow twigs.

As to how this tastes I can’t say. I’ve never tried to make walnut syrup but, as odd as it sounds, such a thing can be done. In native times, white birch often served as an alternate source of, of tree sugar. Nearly any deciduous tree will do when it comes to rendering sap, but when compared to the product of King Maple they are hardly worthy of human effort.

To a sweet-hungry little Red Squirrel, however, such matters are of no concern. I’ll drink to that!

March 8, 2011

The Early Bird Doesn’t Always Get It

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

I got a call the other day about a Woodcock hanging about someone’s driveway (I won’t use their name without permission, but it was a resident of Monroe). The bird was initially injured and sluggish, but appeared to perk up a bit after being captured and confined in a safe warm place. I wanted to look at the little guy before it was released, so the caller kindly agreed to drop it off at my house. I told him I would probably release it into proper habitat the following day or get it into proper hands if it needed treatment (such as a woodcock chiropractor or something). The creature was waiting for me when I got home – confined in one of those copy paper boxes. Good things always come in cardboard boxes punched with a million ventilation holes (see here).

Although the opportunity to see a Woodcock up close was too much to resist, I really wanted to see the live bird before it bit the dust. I’ve held plenty of dead ones in my hand, but warm wiggling ones have eluded me thus far (a woodcock hunt is rather like a snipe hunt you know). I’m not trying to be morbid here, but this was a very early bird indeed. His chances for survival were somewhere between thin and none. These long-billed fellows, called Timberdoodles in some circles and bog suckers in others, are not due in the North Country for a few more weeks at the earliest.  The more usual arrival time is around late March to early April.  Unfortunately, this was a case of the early bird not getting the worm.

Woodcocks are worm specialists. They can, and will, eat insects and spiders if pushed, but they are built for probing soft ground for earthworms. One look at this bird and you can see his distinctively long beak. The tip of this marvelous tool is flexible. Once it is inserted deep into the soil, the woodcock can pull back on the upper mandible (thanks to a kinetic skull) and open up the tip to grab the prey. You’ll also note that the nostril opening, due to this mode of feeding, is located very near the face and that the eyes are located impossibly high on the head (see above and here). To put it simply, these combined features keep dirt out of his sniffer and allows the bird to see potential stalkers (you can imagine how compromising it can be to have your beak embedded in the dirt as a fox sneaks up from behind). Fortunately those bulging eyes permit a nearly unimpeded 360 degree view.

To allow for repositioning the eyes, the timberdoodle has essentially turned its head upside down internally and externally. The ear openings are actually located ahead of the eyes and the cerebellum placed atop, rather than behind, the main portion of the brain. In evolutionary terms, however, their decision making is usually right side up. They certainly can’t be blamed for occasional lapses in judgment given this arrangement. There are records of fall Woodcock failing to move south in a timely manner and paying the price when hit by a sudden cold snap. It is logical to assume they might experience similar lapses of migration logic on the return trip as well.

Because of their lifestyle, the population necessarily heads south to the unfrozen grounds of the S.E. & Gulf States in order to overwinter. There are no worm probing opportunities here when the earth is as hard as a rock. Therefore, they can’t safely return to their spring haunts until the ground thaws out and they can resume their proper occupation.  In all likelihood, this bird experienced thawed conditions while moving north through Ohio and probably entered the county with high hopes of a warming trend.

Unfortunately this Woodcock also experienced a set-back (it had a small wound on its breast – perhaps from running into Jack Frost) and was forced to waste valuable feeding time as it recovered. When the bog sucker was finally released the following morning it was vigorous and alert. The temperature was a wet balmy 51 degrees F. and things were looking very wormy indeed. Perhaps he had cheated death after all, I thought. Unfortunately, the rain eventually turned to snow as the temperatures dropped well below freezing by sunset. The following days have been cold and wintery.

This fellow experienced several changes of fortune over the course of a single day. Bad luck became good, and good luck became bad. Nature doesn’t look kindly upon luck of any sort, so I don’t have any preconceptions that this bird is still alive, but I could be wrong.

March 4, 2011

Red with a Side of Gray

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:44 pm

Ounce for ounce, Red Squirrels are one of the pluckiest beasts around – this in spite of the fact that they are rather small mammals. Most undersized mammals make it a habit to be secretive. They are, after all, usually part of the predatory dinner menu. I mean, look at Winnies the Pooh’s Piglet and his general fear of everything. It is good survival sense not to call attention to yourself when you are small and weak. Red Squirrels, on the other hand, are more like C.S. Lewis’s brave character mouse Reepacheap. They think nothing of verbally taking on creatures 100 times their size. If they perceive that some great injustice has occurred they will tell you. Crossing over an invisible territorial boundary is an example of one such infraction.

I am not here to dwell on the pugnacious nature of the Red Squirrel, however. I merely highlight this fact because their “in your face” nature makes them a very visible part of the winter landscape. They don’t tend to hide right away. Fortunately, Red Squirrels happen to be one of our more visually interesting mammals. Let’s face it, most of our cold-season fur bearers are characterized by their plain Amish style fashion (by this I mean a practical use of subtle color palettes). Red Squirrels are boldly colored with white bellies edged with two black racing stripes, a nice rufous red-brown back, white eye rings, and even a dashing black nose stripe (see beginning photo and here).

During the winter these dynamos take on a drizzling of gray about the sides of the head and torso. This peppery dash certainly enhances their look. The amount of grayness varies between individuals. Some of these creatures appear more like tiny Gray Squirrels (such as the half-tailed version shown above). Unfortunately, there are true Gray Squirrels out there and some of those true Gray Squirrels can be coal black in color. So, it is possible to have a Black Gray Squirrel sitting next to a Gray Red Squirrel on your feeder. Several decades ago there was a regular population of albino Red Squirrels at Kensington Metropark near Brighton, MI.  Back then you could have added a White Red Squirrel to this confusing mix. Not that this has anything to do with it, but I believe this was about the time the Red Green Show started on Canadian television.

In reality, no self-respecting Red Squirrel – red, gray, or white – would allow a Gray Squirrel – gray or black – to sit next to it anywhere, so the potential situation posed above would never actually happen. Red Squirrels have been known to literally bite off the balls of fleeing Gray Squirrels (and I am not completely making this up). In fact, even two Red Squirrels of any color can’t stand the proximity of each other beyond the mating season. This probably explains how the short-tailed squirrel (below) lost half his tail. He’s lucky to have his masculinity intact.

Many mammals, even those Amish ones alluded to earlier, put on a grayer coat in the wintertime. Part of this has to do with blending into the gray winter scene. Northern mammals as a whole are generally much grayer than their southern counterparts, but I won’t get into that because our northern Red Squirrels are actually southern Red Squirrels and that would lead into another semantic nightmare. Red Squirrels, apart from growing longer grayer fur during the winter, also put on a pair of long ear tufts.  This adds to their especially “perky” cold-weather appearance.  All of these hair features disappear during the summer, although the sparky nature of the beast that goes with them does not.

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