Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 27, 2011

The Easter Muskrat is Real

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:04 pm

I will not spend a whole lot of time on this subject. It deals with something that you either “get” or “don’t get.” No amount of explanation will sway you if you are not willing to be swayed. So, I will simply re-print an e-mail I recently sent to a friend on this subject. We’ll call this friend  Ralph (which is good because his name is Ralph). The rest I leave for self explanation.

Ralph:

I know this will be hard to believe, but I was visited by the Easter Muskrat this year. He left me a chocolate “Francois” ‘rat complete with his festive Easter sash and toque (see attached). I was, as you could well imagine, speechless (perhaps you couldn’t imagine me speechless, but please try).  I know you could imagine my sheer delight upon finding a note next to the confectionous creation. Executed in a crudely scribbled hand – likely the result of the writer only having only four functioning toes – the writing appeared to be the words to a poem or song. Unfortunately it was in French. Upon crude translation, it hit me that it was indeed a song meant to be sung to the tune of “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”  My translation abilities are nil when compared to yours, but I believe this is the gist of what it says:

“Here comes Francois Musky-rat

Swimming cross the marshy flat.

Spishity splashity Easter’s on its way!”

Incredible, eh?  I thought you’d be impressed. Since there are still those out there who don’t believe, I thought I’d share this with you first before going public.

Sincerely,

Gerry

April 25, 2011

Mergansers in Motion

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:12 pm

If this were a mere photography blog, then I would not dare to post the images shown below. But, since Naturespeak is better described as a “photo-enhanced” nature blog – containing verbal tales, of varying quality, about natural events and illustrated by images, also of varying quality – I can proceed without any apology. It is a harsh reality of nature that her events do not always occur on bluebird days. Even my bluebird sightings are not always on bluebird days!  So, I shoot what I see using the camera that I have at the time allowed. The rest I record with my eyes and try to translate through my keyboard.

While undertaking an early morning trip (in the company of one of my sons) to check on the status of a local Osprey nest, we encountered a gang of Red-breasted Mergansers swimming in the vicinity of the bridge over Stony Creek. I quickly turned the car around in order to get a better look at these birds. The ospreys would have to wait. Ospreys are incredible beasts and all, but quite frankly, I see them all the time. These mergansers are a much scarcer commodity. As migrants, they only pass through our region while in transit to & from their North Country breeding grounds. Unlike their Common Merganser friends, Red-breasted Mergansers rarely, if ever, overwinter.  Not only are they spectacular looking waterfowl, but these particular early morning fowl were engaging in their equally impressive courtship ritual. The only problem was that the day was gray and overcast with intermittent showers.

First, a description of the bird itself.  I did manage to snap off a decent image of a set of male and female birds (see above), but the light does them an injustice (you know how certain pictures make you look fat or pale or old or a combination of the three). The females are quite pale to begin with. They have a reddish-brown head, a white neck, and a grayish body. They blend in quite well – especially when framed by the rushing gray-green waters of a rain-choked creek.

In typical waterfowl fashion, the male birds are brightly patterned with glossy green heads, white necks, rust-colored breasts, and starkly contrasting black and white back and side patterns.  The male’s head sports a hairy two-pointed crown. Both sexes have long slender bills equipped with pseudo teeth, but the male’s version is brilliantly shaded a bright red. The male’s feet are also red in color. The reason for all this male brightness is explained during the course of their courtship ritual.

There were six birds in the Stony Creek flotilla, being three nicely matched salt & pepper pairs of males and females. Red-breasted Mergansers start their pair bonding before leaving their coastal wintering grounds and they work on maintaining it all the way up. They do so with a series of ritualized movements. You could call it a dance but, in this case, it is more like a synchronized swimming routine. One of the males in this six-pack was in a swim danc’n mood on this morning. Take a look at this video sequence and you’ll definitely pick out the individual I am referring to (see here).

This routine is hard-wired. From the female’s perspective there are no points for creativity. She demands of the male a perfect repetition of the time-honored style with no variation on the theme. Take a look at the still shots below (from the R.B. Merg’s Style Handbook) and I’ll break it down for you.

The dance begins with a dramatic upward extension of his neck and head. He lifts his breast out of the water and points that bright reddish bill at a high angle like some Art deco hood ornament. He lowers his crown and accentuates the neck sweep by starting it with the bill tip pointing straight down (see first and second images above).  Next, keeping his head in position, he opens his mouth and stiffly rocks forward until his breast and lower neck are completely submerged (see third and forth images below). As part of the effort to attain this pose, he kicks up a backwards spray of water with his feet. Rump high in the air, tail down, and red feet exposed, he completes his act and settles back into normal swimming mode.

It’s all over in a few moments, but it is clear that over the course of each sequence the bird made the best of all his color traits. If you have it – flaunt it! You’ll note that this male performed the move twice over the short time of the video. He had completed a dozen more moves before shooting and no doubt continued on as the current took them out of view down the creek.

There is a sound associated with the routine, but it is a close personal type of noise.  We could not hear it from the distance we observed this fandango (a very loud cardinal was hogging all the auditory space). According to the literature, however, the male emits a soft “dorr dorr” call as he turns his head slightly toward the object of his affection.

As for the female’s part of the interaction, I can definitely say that she was acting frisky. Dunking in and out of the water, she seemed to echo his enthusiasm. I certainly felt his enthusiasm and, by reading this mid-quality description and viewing these low-quality images, I trust you can to?

April 22, 2011

A Snoring Sonata

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:08 pm

I was pouring some Plaster of Paris the other day and made a discovery. I happened to be making some fake cupcakes, but that fact is neither here nor there as it relates to this discovery (other than the fact that cupcakes made out of Plaster of Paris are quite chalky). The point is that I was pouring a cup of freshly mixed plaster into a “mold.”  Part of the procedure, when pouring P of P, is to jiggle the container or rattle it with a spoon. This keeps it liquidy and pourable, but this again is not crucial to the story (nor is the fact that liquidy is not a real word). I opted to rattle the inside of the plastic container with the spoon – an act which created a hollow “brrrrrr” sound. Instantly, our captive Leopard Frog started calling in response. “Brrrrrrrr” he croaked several times in succession before ending with a series of staccato “bup bup bups.” There was no doubt in his mind that I was a rival male.

I rattled the spoon again, and again our vociferous male responded in kind. He became suspicious after the third round of give and take and only managed a few indignant “bups” in return. He quit entirely after my fourth attempt at mimicry. My feeble efforts were no longer worthy of his consideration.

This particular frog, a lone dark male who has been with us for many years, has a reputation for answering all manner of challenges. He has responded to the sound of the refrigerator, the microwave, wet balloons, the sound of low voices, the recorded calls of other frogs, the sound of silence, and occasionally to the recorded calls of his own species! Unfortunately he is not entirely reliable in that last category. I have had a 50% success rate with my school programs when trying to get him to call by using a recorded Leopard Frog call. “Oh well kids, Spotty is not feeling up to talking today. Let’s turn on the microwave and mumble Gregorian chants to see if that works.” Now, at least I can pull out the Plaster of Paris cup and try the spoon trick.

Out in the wild, Spotty’s relatives are in the middle of their breeding season. They started calling in March, and will continue through to June, but April is the peak month for the “rut” (so to speak). Of all the calling frogs of spring, Leopard Frogs have the most understated approach. Chorus Frogs chirp, Peepers peep, and Wood Frogs cluck their way through the season with intensity and volume. Leopards, on the other hand, are minimalists. They snore their way through the love-making months with a subtle call that is barely audible to the human ear in an outdoor situation. It is one thing to have a love-sick frog calling from the inside of a reverberating aquarium, but quite another when that call is in competition with the wind and rustling grasses. The sound does not carry well.

I recently recorded a group of serenading Leopard Frogs in the shallow grassy floodwater next to a seasonal ditch. Not having my Plaster of Paris cup with me, I relied on chance to come up with some calling males. I was not disappointed. Well, actually I was a bit disappointed because I could not locate the actual callers. This species is known to sing while underwater, so watching them is like going to the submarine races. Listen here to a portion of the sonata (you won’t see any frogs here, but you will hear them – ignore the single creeking Chorus Frog ).

Yes, there were a few very cold individuals hopping about the shore, but these frogs were either non-calling females (like above) or just plain not calling (see below). Cold frogs are very easy to photograph because they are essentially non-responsive garden sculptures. If I had a video of a male leopard frog in the act of calling, you would notice that they are two baggers. In other words, they have two vocal sacs – one on each side that inflates over the shoulder. Being that I began this blog with a description of something unseen, I will not bore you with the details of yet another un-seen thing. Discussion of the egg-laying behavior will also have to wait for another time.

Before we leave this topic, however, it is worth taking a nice close look at the frogs I did manage to photograph. They are things of beauty. The two pictured frogs shown here are two different frogs. Take alternate looks at one then the other. Now the other then the first. Now the first and….stop. As you can see, the spot pattern is more hyena-like than leopard-like, but does that really matter? Given the growling nature of their call I can certainly see the leopard analogy. Leopard frogs don’t laugh.

April 18, 2011

The Killing Fields

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:35 pm

Meadow Voles skulls on Parade

The shrubby thickets of Lake Erie Metropark are host to an annual influx wintering Long-eared Owls. The birds gather together into daytime roosts numbering anywhere from 2 to 15 individuals. Every year is different – different roost locations, different number of owls, and different degrees of frustrations in trying to find them. I have frequently talked about these intense-looking owls and posted photos (in good years, anyway). The last few winters were not a good Long-eared Owl years. There were only a few about and they were exceedingly skittish. This past winter made up for all that. It was a good year with upwards of a dozen birds congregating into one roost.

You may ask why I am posting an entry about wintering owls at this stage. After all, it is Spring now and, even though there is a brand new cover of snow on the ground as I write this, we need to talk about baby animals, flowers, frogs, and the like. Our winter owls did finally flee the coop only a short time ago. They lingered well into April as if knowing that spring would be slow in coming, but the real reason was probably due to the good food. You see, this past winter was also a good year for mouse-like rodents. Or, perhaps I should re-phrase that and say that it was actually a bad year for mouse-like rodents because Long-eared Owls eat lots of mouse-like rodents.

The departure of the owls provided a golden opportunity to go through the pile of pellets left on the ground under the roost trees. You can imagine how many pellets would accumulate from 12 barfing birds over the course of a winter (“on the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me, 12 barfing birds, 11 hooters staring, etc, etc, …. 5 golden mice, 4 dropping turds, 3 mouse heads…). You could also imagine how much crap accumulates as well. Fortunately, the crap (euphemistically referred to as white-wash) washes away. The pellets, which are composed of undigested bone and hair, remain fairly intact.

The ground beneath the main Long-eared Owl roost – the killing field – was carpeted with winter meal remains. Many of the earlier pellets had disintegrated into a gray hair carpet finely peppered with bones. Hundreds of intact pellets lay on top of that layer. In all, about 290 whole specimens were collected. Long-eared Owl products are about 3 inches in length and about the diameter of small dog poo. Apart from a communal roost it would be hard to peg the owl species to the pellet, but in this location there can be little doubt regarding origin. There were no small dogs roosting in this grove of trees.

These pellets were carefully picked apart and the boney remains were extracted. Even though there were all manner of skeletal bones present in the hairy milieu, the skulls and lower jaws were the primary targets. It is difficult to define species level based on phalanges, ribs, and femurs. Skulls are much more diagnostic. The final tally was: 293 Meadow Voles, 11 Short-tailed Shrews, 9 White-footed Mice, and one lone bird (not a partridge in a pear tree, however – probably a White-throated Sparrow). In other words there was, on average, about one Meadow Vole per pellet (see below and detail here – note that the shrew skulls are on the top left row, the White footed Mice on the top row center, the bird skull on the top row right. All the rest are Meadow Voles)

What are we to draw from this little exercise? Well, for starters, there are no surprises here. Long-eared Owls are known to favor marshy lowlands adjacent to marshes for their hunting grounds. Such places are the favorite haunts of Meadow Voles – short-tailed, cigar-shaped mice that make runways through the grasses – and thus the joining of this flesh to these owl innards. Secondly, the Shrews and White-footed mice are signs of opportunistic feeding. If a shrew is bold enough to present itself on a moonless night then it will eaten. The bird remains are a bit more unusual, but they probably represent an early riser that got up a bit too early or a party bird that stayed up too late. Perhaps there is a lesson, or a fable, here for all little birds to heed.  At any rate, White-throated Sparrows spend a lot of time on the ground and often scramble about on the ground like mice. If any bird is asking for an owling, this one is it.

Finally, there is a single strong message evident from this study. If you are a Meadow Vole living at Lake Erie Metropark, there is a neon target on your back. It is no wonder that Meadow Voles are nervous and constantly upset.

Now that the Long-eared Owls have departed the roost and returned to their spring/summer breeding areas, our local voles now have one less predator to angst over.  The voles will spend the rest of the season making little mice which in turn will provide the hair, bones, and teeth for next year’s winter owl pellets.

Thinking about next year

April 14, 2011

Them is Purdy Ducks

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:31 pm

There are only two times a year to get all your ducks in a row in S.E. Michigan. Although there are plenty of ducks around for the summer and winter, there are far more ducks (in terms of kinds and numbers) to line up during the spring and fall migrations. Personally I prefer the spring line-up (I am not a duck hunter, so I am allowed to say this). You see, it gets down to the pizzazz factor. Fall migrants are not in their best attire. With their breeding seasons complete, the participants are worn out from child-rearing & courtship. A duck enters the fall migration with his or her hair down, so to speak. Many of the males are in their dull eclipse plumage. Most of the young-of-the-year are still in their pimply adolescent stage. In the spring, on the other hand, most everyone is dressed to the nines.

Returning male migrants – those who have spent their winter months sipping cool drinks with little umbrellas in them – are coming back north for one reason only. They want to find a chick (mate) and have ducklings with her. Every hot-blooded male (well, most males anyway) knows that the best way to get a chick is to look your best and hide your body odors. To put it into multi-species language: putting aftershave and a nice shirt on a pig can and will work (especially if the girl pigs also wear lipstick). Certain duck guys really know how to do this. In the waterfowl world both sexes look their best in the springtime, but the guys look simply ravishing.

It is not my intention to cover every single ravishing spring duck here, but instead to focus on three quackers in particular. My choices were limited by my ability to capture a semi-decent image of them. I also wanted to bring up a few lesser appreciated species. Fortunately, I was able to come up with three startling examples that satisfied these criteria. You can’t find a better trio of guy ducks than the Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, and Wood Duck. As a bunch they can be considered “butterflies of the waterbird set.”

Shovelers are specialty of the spring migration. These waterfowl pass through on their journey to the northwestern provinces and only linger long enough to re-charge their flight batteries. The males are a study in simple, yet bold, patterning. For those more familiar with mallards, these birds are mallard-like in plumage design but significantly different. Both species have dark green heads. Whereas mallards have chestnut brown chests and light flanks, however, Shovelers have light chests and chestnut brown flanks (see above and below).  In flight they reveal bright powdery blue shoulder patches and their swift flight is more teal-like in character (see here).  There is nothing in the duck world that compares with their huge spoonbills.

Hundreds of Shovelers have been resting in the local marshes over the past few weeks. They are very timid birds and will burst into flight at the slightest provocation. I found it difficult to get close enough to photograph them until I started to do my Jimmy Durante imitation – at which point they remained in place out of curiosity. If you believe that statement, then I have a million more you might like. At any rate, spring Shovelers are a rare treat.

My encounter with a dazzling pair of Blue-wing Teal was much more informal than my Shoveler encounters (see above). These two birds, pint-sized when compared to other ducks, were dabbling in a flooded section of grass adjacent to the Lake Erie shore (see here). They paid little attention to me. Again, the male stole the show with his bright white face crescent, gray-blue head, speckled flanks, and blue shoulder patch (revealed when the bird commenced preening – see below). You will notice a physical resemblance between this bird and the previously mentioned Shovelers because they are closely related (part of the blue-wing complex – a drinking club based in Boca Raton, Florida).

Finally, I’d like to re-direct your attention to the Wood Duck. To save this resplendent fowl for last is somewhat of a crime, I will admit. This bird is not only the most colorful duck in Michigan it is arguably one of the most colorful birds in the world. Tropical birds have nothing over this creature. Unlike the first two ducks, the woodie remains as a summer resident. Unlike the others as well, this bird remains beautiful all year long. The female, while having nice bone structure, remain nice and plain all year long.

I came upon a Wood Duck pair a few mornings ago. They were exceedingly cautious and I had to employ my best stealth techniques in order to get close enough to view them. The male bird raised his head to peer through the vegetation as he heard my Durante rendition. Even through I’ve seen this species hundreds of time, when viewed in the bright morning light through the lens of the camera I was again blown away (see above). In this view he looks almost girlish! I don’t know, like some rock band singer from the seventies. But, effeminate nature aside, this is one purdy duck. It is probably more purdier than all the rest of them in the spring line-up. They is all purdy though.

April 11, 2011

My Favorite Ditch

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:51 pm

April in Monroe means one thing for me. It means a trip to my favorite roadside ditch in the western part of the county at the Petersburg Game Area. Actually, this is not the only thing that April means to me, but consider this as a literary device to move the story along. I mean, it wouldn’t be as compelling to say that April means 32 things to me and number 28 is …..or, April means that I can no longer use weather as an excuse not to do yard work, but when I can get away I…..  A better way to put it would be to say that it just wouldn’t be April without a trip to the ditch.

This particular ditch is like many across the county, state, and region. Swollen by the spring rains and steeped with the accumulated leafage from last fall, the tea-colored waters are full of discarded drink cups, broken tail lights (always from the right side), and chip bags. At initial glance it is not a pretty place at all. The thing that makes this one special is that it consistently hosts an annual influx of breeding Chorus and Wood Frogs. They are always there in April and I am always there to immerse myself in their sonic efforts. But, as the ad goes, there is more -much more.

The frogs certainly are the main show. This time around both species were still going at it but were past their breeding peak. Huge clusters of Wood Frog eggs, now growing green with algae, were suspended from the submerged vegetation. These frogs deposit their eggs in communal bundles and the freshest deposits were apparent by their still clear coat of jelly (see below). A few quiet individuals were sulking about the ditch (see here) but most of the calling woodies were well back in the adjacent flooded woodlot.

Tiny Chorus Frogs were much in evidence but still very hard to see. Being only 1 inch in length, and adorned with three rows of cryptic spots arranged against a pale brown body, they merged perfectly with their surroundings (see here and below). The performing males chose clumps of dead grass for their calling locations so that they would not stand out. The only way for a human observer to spot them was to look for the vibrating water created by their trills. The performers took in a gulp of air and shifted it back and forth from body to air sac – each time swelling the vocal bag to the size of a marble. Take a look at this video (here) of one of the calling Chorus Frogs delivering an earnest round of creeking.

There were several individual clumps of Chorus Frog eggs in the ditch as well. One (pictured above) revealed tiny well-formed tadpoles within.  Although I usually avoid taking shots that show garbage, I couldn’t resist one shot (see here). One of the males chose to do his calling from the lip of a plastic McDonald’s cup which appropriately says “open really WIDE” on the side.  O.K., so they don’t open their mouths at all while calling but can be big-mouthed when it comes to snatching up prey. All the frogs became very small mouthed when a hungry Garter Snake passed by, however (see below).

Although the frogs appeared to dominate the scene, my tea-toned strip of temporary linear water (aka ditch) was actually dominated by mosquito larvae. The place was teeming with millions of these future blood-suckers. I used my empty McDonald’s coffee cup (which I later threw away in an appropriate location) to sample the population. Each scoop of water I pulled up with that cup had at least 10 to 15 larvae in it (see below with detail shot). As air breathers, the larvae suspend themselves from the surface in order to bring their breathing tubes in contact with the air. They squirm about and swim to the bottom when feeding on the algae slime below. I have to admit, that cup of mosquito water tasted pretty good -coulda used a touch of cream, but who’s complaining.

Apart from the mosquitoes, Caddis fly larvae, encased in their weedy mobile homes, were common ditch residents. Red Water Mites swam by as Water Striders skated over their heads and came to rest on the floating frog egg mats. Perhaps the most fascinating find of the day was an impressive Predaceous Diving Beetle. I used my multi-purpose coffee cup to gather in that beast as well (who needs fancy nets and specimen jars, eh?).

One of the largest of aquatic beetles, the Predaceous Diver comes in several species. All are, like their name suggests, predators which dive (their genus name Dytiscus means “diver” in Greek and absolutely nothing in German). If you were paying attention, you’d realize by now that this beetle is larger than the Chorus Frogs previously mentioned. In other words, Garter Snakes are not the only threat to frog existence in this little piece of ditch.

I handled the beetle beast very carefully because they can land a hefty bite if they so choose. This one was a female as evidenced by her lack of suction discs on the two front legs. Because they are so smooth and sleek (not to mention strong!) they are very hard to hold. I fired off a few shots before letting it fall back into the drink.

Yes, my annual journey to the Petersburg ditch was a good one. Just as surely as the frogs are drawn to the brown water, this middle aged man with coffee cup in hand, is also drawn.

April 7, 2011

Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:01 pm

You’ve seen it many times. That climatic scene, following a long chase through an abandoned carnival ground, where the evil villain finally confronts the good guy in a hall of mirrors. “Go ahead and shoot me,” the baddie sneers as multiple images of himself appear before our hero –reflected in a dozen mirrors. “But,” he sarcastically points out, “you don’t know which one is the real me dew y-e-w? Perhaps y-e-w need some time for… (cinematic pause) …reflection?” An echoey round of “Ya ha ha ha ha’s ”  is clipped short by the crash of bullet shattered glass. The mortally wounded villain falls to the ground only inches behind our hero who leveled his shot over his left shoulder. “Reflections,” the hero comments, “don’t have garlic on their breath.”

O.K., I made that ending up, but my point is that while we humans are often temporarily fooled by mirror images, we generally figure it out. We know that if the face in the mirror looks like us then it is us. That reflected face may not be a pleasant one (especially in the early light of day) but deep inside we still know. A different face in the mirror means that either you are a werewolf or are looking at a picture and not a mirror.  We not only know what mirrors are but we possess an ability to recognize ourselves in it.

Unfortunately, birds are not gifted with such reflective abilities. They are hard-wired to view a reflection as another bird (an incredibly handsome one, I might add).  Springtime is typically the season where our neighborhood birds begin attacking themselves. Blood is running high this time of year as rival males come to blows over turf and fair maidhens. Robins and cardinals will hurl themselves at their window reflections with vengeance. Because the “opponent” (aka glass) in these cases is un-yielding, the intensity of frustration often approaches violence. Sometimes the battle ends in a broken neck for both combatants – the real one and the reflected one.

Yesterday morning I saw a situation which one-uped these typical one-on-one battles. I caught my neighborhood Tufted Titmouse engaged in a three-way argument with others of his kind. All three of the birds were equally matched because, of course, they were identical. This poor little fellow stumbled upon the one place on the side of my vehicle where the side mirror reflected the window and vice-versa.  By perching on the window sill he could see himself directly reflected in the window and the side mirror at the same time. When he turned to face himself he was confronted with another self sneaking up from behind. He was trapped in a hall of mirrors.

I grabbed my camera and began filming as soon as I realized what was going on. I posted one short sequence (see here) for you to watch, but actually filmed much more. This frustrated little tit went back and forth like this for at least five minutes before my efforts to record the situation finally frightened him off.  (When I say finally frightened him off, I mean just that. He did not want to leave and continually came back down to the car in order to continue the battle). Who knows how long he’d been at it before I arrived or how long he would have continued.

When you watch the video you’ll hear the moments when he actually lands a blow on the mirror as a tap sound. Otherwise you can see the obvious confusion as he shifts his gaze from window to mirror and back. I will say one thing, however. This guy never got completely bent out of shape. Yes, he elevated his crest a bit higher on occasion and peeped a few times, but overall he maintained his dignity.

Heck, in the end he won. My getting to work meant driving away in that evil hall of mirrors. I did have to get to work (imagine using the excuse that an angry titmouse kept me at bay for hours). As I backed out of the driveway I thought I detected a high-pitched, and slightly sinister “Ya ha ha ha ha” in the distance.

April 4, 2011

Bad Little ‘Rats

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:09 am

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I like muskrats. I like them not only for what they are as animals, but also because of their long complex relationship with us humans. This latter category provides the grist for countless stories that serve to join the natural & the cultural world into a seamless whole. In other words, muskrats are part of our cultural fabric and we of theirs.  Sorry, that was the interpreter in me making a verbose attempt at explaining why I have an affinity for something as humble as the muskrat. This is not an easy thing to do for it requires bashing the Captain and Tennille and glorifying naked muskrats floating in bowls of creamed corn. So I will stop for now. Be forewarned, however, that I will be back on this (“I vill be bock”).

Now, I know that Joe Robison, the biologist at the Pointe Mouillee State Game Area has a love-hate relationship with muskrats, although I feel his view favors the “strong dislike” side of the scale. He has told me so. They cause him more headaches than they are worth. Yes, they help maintain openings in the cat-tail marsh which serve well for waterfowl and their houses are prime nesting sites for the likes of Canada Geese, but they also dig holes through his dike system. This is a bad thing. This week I got a glimpse into that part of the Mouillee muskrat tapestry.

The purpose of a dike system is to allow for draining down isolated sections for planting feed or allowing natural forage plants to sprout, and for flooding other sections so that waterfowl have access to this feed when needed.  Mouillee already has an elaborate system of culverts and pumps to achieve the desired effects at the desired times. When certain burrowing creatures, let’s say muskrats, make Swiss Cheese out of a dike they create multiple channels for the water from one side to find it’s way to the other side at a time undesired by the marsh manager. Sometimes the results are disastrous and a portion of the dike collapses. The game area staff has to get out their big machines to re-construct the dike.

We can’t completely blame the ‘rats. They are just doing what comes natural. If someone provides a nice solid bank for them to tunnel into who are they to decline such generosity?  I can’t help but to think about the ‘rats as the character of Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” where the poor simpleton has to admit “I done a bad thing, George. I done a bad thing.” Isn’t it ultimately the water’s fault for finding the route and breaking through?  Yes, the water made it a bad thing.

I only saw a few muskrats when I was out on the dikes last week. The first was, in fact, a cute little fellow with Guinea Pig looks (see beginning photo). Sure he was in the process of attempting to block one of the Mouillee culverts with vegetation, but so what (see wider view here).  He was busy gathering and eating in the purest of wild muskrat traditions. I ask you, do those beady little eyes betray any sinister motive?

There was muskrat sign everywhere. The distinctive runway patterns issued out into the water from the numerous bank dens located under the dikes (see above).  I came across a much larger ‘rat foraging at water’s edge. He dove into the muddy brew and made directly for the entrance of his bank den. Normally the entrance would have been well below water level and he could have slipped away in secret, but because the water level was so low, he was forced to slink across an exposed mud porch before reaching his inner sanctum (see below).  Now, this was a sneaky looking ‘rat. I soon discovered the reason for his guilt. “I done a baaad thing…”

Just down from this fellow, water was pouring through a hole in the bank (see below & here). It was gushing out and cascading down the slope into the canal. At the waterline, the flow was following the fan shaped pattern which indicated that a muskrat den entrance was directly below this breach.  It was clear that this “bad old water” had found a way through the upper portion of a ‘rat’s tunnel system and had the audacity to break through a weak spot on the other side. Even though the ‘rat and the water were guilty of the crime, gravity was perpetuating it. The water on the one side of the dike was substantially higher than that on the canal side. It was flowing at a good pace – much more than a little Dutch kid could plug with his finger.

I haven’t been back yet to see if this breach resulted in a bank collapse (earthen not financial).  It was interesting to see, first hand, this ‘rat induced destruction. I’m pretty sure Joe would not use “interesting” to describe this same situation. But, isn’t it interesting…er, educational… to see that my little mammal has a mysterious and slightly sinister side? Is the muskrat a character in this play or is he the director?  I ask you.

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