Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 28, 2011

Big Blue

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:28 am

It’s hard to get too excited about grass unless you are an aging hippie, a forage specialist, or a bored naturalist. In fact, once you take away the Hippie “grass” (and remove the disappointed Hipster from the conversation) you are left with a fairly small group of people willing to even talk about grass. Grasses don’t have the pizzazz that flowers and trees do. They are grass, after all. This is not to say they are unimportant or even un-interesting. No, this is to say that they are merely librarians up against pop stars. In fact, the planet could not support humans without grasses (or librarians). I am not here to preach, however. I only want to introduce you to one member of the gang and then move along.

The waning days of very late summer are a great time to meet up with one of the more impressive members of the grass clan called Big Bluestems.  They are hard to miss on account of their great height. At their peak this time of year, these towering plants can achieve heights in excess of 6-8 feet. They are one of the plants that gave rise to the “tall grass” designation for the Midwest prairies. These were the vast grasslands that once spread across the middle of the continent and fed the thundering herds of bison. Although the “vast” portions of both the prairies and the bison herds are long gone, the grasses still exist in eastern prairie pockets and many restoration projects incorporate them into the mix.  Big Bluestems are a crucial part of that mix.

The other “big” feature of the Big Blue is the part you cannot see without the aid of a backhoe or a back-mounted mini camera on woodchuck. The taproots extend as much as 10 feet down and the individual stems within any given area are interconnected via a rhizome system about 4 inches beneath the surface. Needless to say, this is a plant that sticks around once it is established (or re-established, as the case may be).

It is worth mentioning that apart from all the “big” things, the name of this plant also derives from the bluish cast of the stem (see above and detail here). This feature is evident on the portion of the stem around the swollen joints (a feature on aging Hippies as well, come to think of it). Even the flowering head is purplish blue (see above).

August is flowering time for the Big Bluestem. The plants produce multi-parted floral heads that appear like bird feet – giving rise to the common name of “Turkeyfoot grass”. There are typically three so-called “spiklets” on this floral head. Triggered into action by the shortening days of the month, bluestems dangle paired yellow anthers into the air and allow the wind to carry about their pollen (see below). Being tall, they easily capture whatever breeze happens by.

You know, there is more to tell, but I’d hate to pile on too much “grass talk” in one place.  I mean, Chippewa people once used the pliant stems for lashings and an Italian Monk with the impressive name of Fulgenzio Vitman was responsible for the plant’s classification, but let’s just leave this discussion where it sits and appreciate the Big Blue for what it is. It stands as a reminder that the grass is both greener and bluer on our side of the fence.

August 23, 2011

Bloodsuckers & Bats

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:25 pm

I recently ventured high up into the belfry (actually the attic) of a local building to see the bat colony residing therein. The presence of the colony had been known for some time, but I wasted no time in checking it out because the season is late and the gang might shift locations at any time. Initial reports indicated “20 or so” individuals, so I was hoping for such. Armed with a camera and a weak flashlight, I ascended the creaky pull-down ladder and entered the dark void above.

True to expectations the place reeked of guano – the pungent musty odor of a million bat droppings. In this black hot space the smell was, if not overpowering, definitely “hanging thick.” My flashlight flickered to life after whacking it a few times on my palm. The beam dimly illuminated a tight circular space defined by a block wall and a wood ceiling. Piles of guano covered the floor (see below). I swept the light across the upper wall to search for the bats. Unfortunately, there were only three bats in evidence but I was not disappointed.  They were Big Brown Bats who, in spite of their name, are only about 3 inches long.

Two of the individuals were hanging close to each other and the third was hanging tight to the far corner. All were suspended upside-down (how else?) near the top of the wall were it met the ceiling. The block surface was sufficiently rough to provide a grabbing surface for their feet and singular thumb claws. Although they were roosting, the bats were quite aware of my presence. They shifted and sniffed the air every time the flashlight beam hit them and skittered along the wall whenever the beam left.

In order to get pictures, I had to put the flashlight beam on them with one hand and get a focus fix through the camera viewfinder held by the other. My view of them was limited to the temporary flash of the camera. At one point, one of the little beasts smiled a gap-toothed smile as if to welcome me to hell (see beginning photo). I say this because after a few minutes in this space the heat was beginning to get to me. It was around 88 degrees F outside but well over 100 degrees inside. I could only imagine what sort of nasty fungal dust I was kicking up while in that pungent space.  The camera viewer was fogging up and my flashlight flickered nervously.

I wondered where the other bats had gone, since the earlier report was from only a week earlier. This question was answered when I turned to get closer look at the lone corner bat (see above). This fellow was lower and more approachable than the smiling pair. I popped off a few shots before he bolted. Literally running along the wall, the creature scurried to the top edge and then ducked into the narrow space at the top of the block (see below). It was then that I noticed the numerous dark “rub” spots where countless other bats performed the same procedure (see here). I believe most of the other bats were actually in the block wall itself. On this hot day they may have sought the slightly cooler outer surface.

After ten minutes I had enough and gladly left the inferno for the cool light space below. Along the way I gathered two dried dead bats that were on the floor. Both of the specimens were mummified from long exposure to dry attic heat. One of the bodies was that of a young bat (officially called a “pup” but who cares). This particular find was exciting because it indicated that this place served as a breeding colony at some point. I would have to return early next summer to see some living batlets (the breeding season is long over by this time of year).

As it turns out, there is another reason for me to return.  Later, down in the bright light of day, I re-examined my photos and realized that I had indeed encountered a blood-sucker in that dark hole. No, our Michigan bats are not blood-suckers (big browns specialize in flying beetles as a matter of fact) and there was no personal concern on my part other than ingesting too much poop dust during my investigation. In my pictures of the timid corner bat, however, there appeared the image of a wingless insect on the block immediately next to him. This was a “bat bug” (see enlarged image below).

Bat bugs feed on bat blood. Close relatives of bed bugs, they depend on regular blood meals to complete their growth cycle. In the absence of bats they have been known to sneak in a human meal or two, but members of the bat clan are their main fare. This individual appeared to be freshly full from a recent meal and was probably sneaking back into the woodwork when my camera pin-pointed him in the pitch darkness.

I will return to this colony next year and see if, along with recording baby bats in action, perhaps add a bat bug or two to my collection. I will place them next to my set of beaver bugs.

August 18, 2011

Teasel Time Well Spent

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:57 pm

I was momentarily frightened by the discovery that teasels were monocarpic perennials. I was only trying to find out why nearly all the teasels I’ve been seeing lately had white blossoms when I ran across this singular fact. It was a simple question to address: “where have all the purple teasels gone?” That is all I needed to answer. But, instead I was faced with a frightening set of words I had not encountered before – or if I had, they were quickly forgotten.

The answer to the purple vs. white flower thing was easily answered. Quite honestly, before this year I had always assumed that the two are color varieties of the same plant. I was wrong (for at least the third time in my life). There are two species of teasel in our neck of the woods. Both are tall spikey-topped plants and both frequent waste spaces along roadsides and old pastureland. There are distinct differences in leaf structure as well, but the flower color is the most immediately visible difference between the two.  The purple flowered teasels are called Common Teasels (Dipascus fullonum) and the white flowered ones are called Cut-leaf Teasels (Dipsacus laciniatus).

Cut-leaf Teasel

I began noticing that all of the teasels this season appeared to be of the white variety and, frankly, the observation bugged me. Although I’d seen white ones before, I was more used to those of the purple hued persuasion. At any rate there was always a mixture. Craning my neck at every passing clump this year, I consistently spotted white ones. When I finally came upon a purple flowered example, the one I now know as the Common Teasel, I treated it like a rock star (which is a ridiculous thing, I realize). In short, I do believe that the Cut-leaved Teasels really hit their stride this year and made extreme advances into Lower Michigan.

Common Teasel

Now, back to that term “monocarpic perennial.” It sounds illegal or deviant in some way. I mean, if you labeled a person as a known monocarpic perennial you would cause some eyebrows to raise. But, as it is, the term is strictly botanical and simply refers to growth habit and not religious or fish-eating tendencies. Because individual Teasel plants only flower once then die, they might justly be called biennials (one year of growth, one year of flowering). Because they exist for years as ground-hugging clusters of leaves called basal rosettes, they act like perennials. But, perennials bloom every year as well. So, teasel time is framed within this specific term – also applied to century plants and the like – meaning something like “one seed producing year and that’s it.”

As it relates to the main question, however, this monocarpic discussion is not all that important. Teasels come in white and purple. That is the answer.

August 13, 2011

A Big Mouthful

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:25 pm

By the time August rolls around, most swallows are starting to think about leaving.  Long before other birds are even looking at their travel brochures, swallows are preparing for the big move. They are eyeing up the fares and booking their flights.  Of course, not all of them are – thus the use of the word “most” and the reason for this blog entry. I was surprised to find that quite a few Barn Swallows are still very much in a family way. This is a bit late by my estimation, but my estimation don’t count for much sometimes (either do my English skills).

These birds are still very much in evidence around their summer colonies. A goodly portion will be engaged in basking. Barn Swallows are creatures of the sun and take every chance they can for sun-bathing. The low angled rays of the August sun can take the edge off on these cooler mornings and the birds will spend an inordinate amount of time on east facing roofs and branches. Only the close approach of a passing human (and I mean very close) will stir them back into temporary flight.

A good number of the Barn Swallows flitting (and basking) about these days are young-of-the-season still fresh from the nest and new on the wing. They blend in with their adult companions due to their full size, but they possess the duller feathers and slightly befuddled look of youth. A few of the younger ones even retain a few down feathers but these birds are fully fledged and are pretty much fending for themselves. They are now capable hunters snatching all manner of insects out of the air or deftly plucking sips of water while on the cruise.

There are plenty of flightless swallows confined to the nest, however. One Barn Swallow nest tucked under the eaves of the Crosswinds Marsh shelter contained three eager chicks. These little fellows had a lot of growing to do. One bold nestling allowed himself to be seen above the rim of the nest and displayed the wide lipped smile of a very young bird. His cautious nest mates only popped up when one of the adults fluttered past – their bright yellow mouths agape. Their parents were anxious at my approach, but kept on snatching and delivering food to their hungry charges. As long as I retained my distance they would fly to and from the nest. There was a bit of urgency in their delivery and they appeared to be “fast-tracking” their young.

Based on the offering of one of the parents, these nestlings should be bulked up in no time. Hoisting a dragonfly bigger than his head, he did all he could to retain his grip while patiently waiting for me to back away. The dragonfly, a skimmer, was long dead but still an ungainly mouthful for a big-mouthed bird (sure they nest in barns, but one can easily imagine that they could swallow a small barn if given the chance). The adult bird could have polished it off in a few gulps if it had been a personal meal, but it was to serve as baby food. There were plenty more dragons in the marsh to gulp and only so much daylight in which to gulp them, so I retreated and left the busy parents to their late season task.

August 9, 2011

Mystery Mushroom Madness

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

I am not a mushroom expert, nor have I ever played one on T.V. So, when a patron walked into the nature center, plopped down a small bag of large mystery mushrooms, and asked for some identification help, I was hesitant. He primarily wanted to find out if they were edible. “Everything is edible,” I said, “but it’s what happens after the eating that causes problems.” That was my way of saying that I was not going to be responsible for his death. “I can only recommend morels, puffballs, and pink-bottoms.”  I did promise to look into it, however, and give him a call if I found out a positive I.D. I kept one for closer examination.

These were big mushrooms – over 7 inches tall with yellow conical caps nearly 4 inches wide. Small elves could have sought shelter beneath their canopy and have plenty of space for a ceiling fan. The most striking part about them was their potato-like basal structure.

There are several ways to identify ‘shrooms. The wrong way – my preferred method – is to look at a bunch of pictures and see what matches. Unfortunately, mushrooms vary quite a bit depending on their mojo and the Chinese calendar (not really, but they are an arbitrary bunch of organisms). You can get some sense of color, shape, and growth habit with this method but it is only a starting point. The proper way to identify a mushroom is to survey its fine details and then combine the results of this visual checklist with habitat and seasonal information in order to take it through the steps of an identification key. This is a lot of work and the primary reason that I only eat morels and puffballs, and let other people eat pinkbottoms.

My actual method in this circumstance combined the above procedures. My theory is that a wrong and a right combine to make a “mostly right” (as long as the wrong is only misguided and not morally wrong or fatal!). At any rate, my method ultimately led to a nearly certain identification of these fungi as some sort of Amanita. This turned out to be mostly wrong and potentially fatal.

One of the first structural features to note on any mushroom are the spore-producing structures located on the underside. These examples were “gilled” (see above).  In other words they are divided into multiple hanging partitions that radiate from the center. There are many types of gills, but let it suffice that these were of the “gilled tribe.”  The central support stem was a relatively smooth column lacking any sort of collar (this was important) and the cap was smooth and relatively dry (another potentially important detail).

By far the most striking feature was the large basal structure evident on two of the mushrooms. Fortunately this fellow picked a perfect trio showing the stages of growth. This part is called a volva. It is a sac-like covering that protects the emerging cap and stem. These volvas were massive and surely would help me on my pathway of learning.  All of these features, including the low brow visual method, led me to think Amanitis. There was but one more thing to do.

I removed one of the caps and placed it on a white sheet of paper overnight in order to produce a spore print. The microscopic spores will rain down onto the surface and produce a near photographic image of the underside of the mushroom. One of the primary reasons for doing this is to see what color the spores are. Spore color is also an important diagnostic trait and one which you can’t really determine any other way. My spore print (see below and detail here) turned out to be a magnificent shade of cinnamon brown. The pattern recorded the intricate details of the gills and of the inner air flow within the cap (the result, no doubt of the tiny ceiling fan within).

The only problem is that Amanitis have white spores. This is not a variable trait; it is listed as one of THE traits of this large mushroom group. I was left with a wild series of gilled brown-spored possibilities including Hypholomas, Bolbitius, Stropharia, and on and on. None matched at nicely as the Amanitis. If I had only stopped before the spore print I would have achieved ignorant happiness.

Now I am unhappily ignorant and, frankly, don’t give a rip about the true identity of these things. I will not call this fellow back nor will I recommend eating them. I like the spore print, though, and feel that is reward enough for time well spent. I can take solace in being mostly right can’t I?

August 6, 2011

She with Spines Upon Her Rear

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:32 am

This makes the third blog in a row which either features or involves a spider of some sort but, dog-gone it, I just can’t ignore these things (even when they force me to eat some crow). On a recent evening walk with some friends, I came upon a splendid little gem of an arachnid called a Spined Micrathena. This individual was suspended upside down in the center of her finely made little orb web. In spite of the evidence to the contrary (in the form of a half dozen tiny midge corpses hung upon it) I reasoned that this web must have been freshly made. Most spiders make fresh webs at night and the hour was late, so I lapsed into lazy spider logic and claimed that “she will eat her web in the morning and spin a new one the following night.” Unfortunately, I had that part bass akwards. In the case of this species, they spin their webs anew at dawn and take them in at night – not the other way around.

I am glad to admit to this crow-eating event because it makes for one less mistake in the future (at this rate I will be perfect by the time I am 156 ½ years old!). My later research on the topic showed conclusively that Spiny Micrathenas are daytime hunters. They like flies. Although their circular orbs are quite small and finely made, they are centered between lengthy support lines (usually two parallel lines) that may span over 6 feet from end to end. They are known for extending these stout lines across trails and bridging the wide spaces available in open deciduous woodlots. This is why early morning trailwalkers should carry long sticks (and speak softly lest they ingest one of the spiny makers). They often leave these tie lines in place while renewing their orbs, so they can remain in position for up to a week in the absence of blundering humans or deer.

All this website stuff is fine and good, but the spider herself – the web surfer- is alone worth the price of admission.  My use of the term “she,” by the way, is due to the fact that the males do not make webs. The males of this species have small un-adorned bottoms and slink about in the underbrush hoping to connect with “she who has spines upon her rear.” It is the magnificently spined rear on the female that is her claim to visual fame.

When disturbed, these spiders will leave the orb and retreat to the cover of nearby vegetation via one of the main support lines. I caught my spider in the act of retreat – hanging upside down like a monkey on a tightrope (note the differing structure of each set of legs – they are not all of equal length). In this position, the five pairs of defensive spikes adorning the abdomen are well displayed. The structure is hard, so these spikes would be formidable barriers for hungry birds. It is also possible that because it resembles a seed, bug-eating birds may be fooled by the appearance.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these spiders is their ability to make sound. A number of spiders in the Argiope family, such as the Spined Micrathena, are capable of making a buzzing sound if appropriately ticked off. By rubbing a set of stiff hairs on the inner side of the back set of legs onto a ridged structure located on the inner abdomen, they can generate a low-pitched buzz. The sound plates, located on the so-called book lung covers, look like three dimensional fingerprints, but are is too small to see in my detail photo.

Unfortunately, I did not hear my spider speak, angrily or otherwise, on my evening stroll. I therefore challenge you to bring your ear close to the next one you encounter and you’ll likely hear it buzz just before it enters your ear. Go ahead, try it and let me know how it, sounds.



August 1, 2011

Damsel in Distress

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:42 pm

I’ve always wanted to use this title – Damsel in Distress – in reference to Damselflies, but never came upon a natural situation in which to apply it.  It would have to be a situation where one of the insects was either in obvious impending danger or past the point of danger or death. Sure, I could have locked a damselfly into a playset fortress tower or tied one onto the tracks right in front of a toy train.  I might’ve considered gluing a tiny handlebar mustache onto a praying mantis and posing him next to the hapless “damsel”, however, all this certainly would have backfired.  Sure, a kid could get away with such a thing and it would be viewed as cute. If I did it, well, it would be considered borderline creepy or as a sign that I myself am in some sort of mental distress. So, I waited until a real distressed damsel came along.

Yesterday morning a spider nabbed a Damselfly right in front of me and I was handed my opportunity. I did not witness the initial grab, although it was obvious that the event had just occurred. The Damsel  – aka the distressee – was a female, based on her pale coloration.  I don’t know the species name and not sure it matters in the case. She was still alive when discovered. The spider – aka villain – was also probably a female (based on her size and the presence of an egg case on the stem next to her). She was a Long-jawed Orb Weaver. Both creatures were spindly looking things and the whole affair looked more like a battle of the stick figures.

The orb weaver apparently took advantage of a chance to sample some day food. As per their name, weavers make net webs to capture prey. They rarely get an opportunity to eat diurnal flyers because they weave their stringy traps at night and retreat to cover during the day. Mayflies, midges, and moths are their most likely fare. I’m guessing that the damsel landed on the stem next to the resting spider and the spider immediately opted for some “take out.”  Since a resting Long-jawed Orb Weaver blends in seamlessly with the lines of a grass stem, the damselfly would never have suspected the presence of the spider.

It was a one-sided contest from the get-go (watch some of it on this video). It was actually no contest at all. The first step was for the spider to throw a few silk lines around the Damselfly and secure her wings. Then it was up to the mini-dragonfly’s thorax to deliver a venomous bite. The damsel put up a struggle (if you can call wiggling your abdomen a struggle), so the Orb weaver resumed throwing on a few more tie lines until even this feeble movement stopped. At least one loop pulled up the damsel’s abdomen into an un-natural bend as if putting the victim into half nelson.

Now, I suppose that I could have been the gallant knight at that point. It would have been so easy to pull her out and chastise the evil spider (“rats, foiled again”).  The damsel, her large brown eyes full of tears, would throw her tiny hairy arms around my thumb (“my hero”).  I would then say something like “twas nothing  my fair maiden– it beith my honor, and blah blah blah…”  But, no, I left things as they were. The spider returned to her biting pose on the damsel’s thorax and sunk her long jaws into her prey. It was over.

Hey, who am I to mess with nature (and, not to mention, risk looking creepy and borderline distressed)?

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