Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 29, 2011

Haughty Hawk

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:41 pm

Hawk identification, at its core, is a fairly straight forward thing.  Going by differences in body plan, pattern, and flight behavior one can basically separate one hawk from anudder (two have a much harder time, but that is a different story).  In it’s particulars, however, it much more challenging. There are many dirty secrets of hawk watching. Because birds within a single species can come in many different age plumages and adult color varieties there is no such thing as an “average” bird of any type.  Perhaps even more sinister, individual birds can alter their appearance by flaring tail feathers, bending wings, and fluffing feathers. They often defy any and all bird guide illustrations.  This latter fact also applies to us humans – I mean, compare your sad saggy face in the morning mirror to that at mid-day, etc.

The Red-tailed Hawk is a prime example of this “one hawk, many faces in the mirror” concept.  These large buteos (that is the raptor band they belong to – a hangover from the 60’s rock group) come in a rainbow of plumages and their immature stages lack the name-sake reddish tail, but their appearance changes dramatically depending on their mood.  A fluffed out bird looks massive when compared to a rain-drenched bird, for example.

A recently captured Red-tail (banded by Dave Hogan at our mid-September Hawkfest at Lake Erie Metropark) brought us an opportunity to see the “hawk in the mirror” effect.  This bird, an immature born earlier in the year, displayed a very un-Red Tail-like, but marvelous, crest.

This hawk was, to say the least, a bit peeved at being detained from his autumn migration – thus the reason for the flared crest. He originally altered his course to nab the bait Starling placed at the center of the banding net.  The next thing he knew, he was pinned to the ground under a net and gifted with a bright new aluminum band. Now, at the time of these photographs, he was being displayed in front of a hundred people and really not liking it.  A quick jab at his captor’s (Dave’s) hand drew some blood and he rose up to face all other takers.  Dave subtly stepped over to cover the rich red splat on the sidewalk (there were children about, you see) and continued to display his unwilling guest.

In a passive state, this fellow would not have shown any hint of a crest. When in an aggressive or intimidated mood, all the feathers on the back of the head go up like the hackles on a dog. The purpose is to look larger than normal and hopefully scare away any opponent. The effect is , well….,effective. I’ve never noticed the particular way the leading portion of the crest divides into two owl-like tufts and the white bases of the feathers gleam when viewed form the back.  When in this pose, the look approaches that of a Harpy. These South American monkey eating eagles have a prominent crest all the time.

The crest, combined with an open mouth and a fixed – almost cross eyed – stare, combined to produce an especially unusual appearance. All returned to normal when the bird was hefted into the air at the collective count of three.  Lifted by half a dozen powerful wing strokes he lifted over the tree line and vanished back into the migratory river of air.

In retrospect, it probably isn’t correct to claim this crested look as “un-Red-tail like”.  Having seen it and experienced it, I’d have to say that this bird was actually revealing his true wild spirit. This was a fleeting taste of raw nature.


September 25, 2011

Fuzzy Wuzzy Flier

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:26 am

I walked past it the first time. Something about the fuzzy white patch on the branch caught my eye, however, and I turned back to take a look. Instead of a fungus, as I suspected, a hairy moth presented itself and I was introduced to a Large Tolype. I only identified the creature after the fact – but, for the sake of narrative I want to cut to the chase. Let’s just say that it was not hard determining it’s identity due to the size and hairiness. Not knowing the identity right away actually increased my wonder.

Apart from the moth-like wings there was little to define this critter as a moth, leave alone an insect. I realize this is s a creepy thought, but my initial reaction was that it was a cross between a snow white spider and a Shiatsu. It appeared to have a few too many legs – the fuzzy “appendages” sticking out of the back end turned out to be abdominal projections (oh, you say, that clears everything up). The Shiatsu part, well, hopefully you can see that.  Even in a world of hairy moths, this one took the cake.

Based on the mysterious name, one might expect that Large Tolypes originate somewhere in Middle Earth (certainly lording over the small and medium Tolypes and fearing the huge Tolypes). I was unable to discover what “Tolype” means other than a cryptic genus name. The species name, “velleda” (Latin for veil) probably refers to the gossamer wings, but no one seems to know. Seeing this moth in its unique resting pose, I would propose that the veil reference might indicate how the thing hides its face behind a veil of hair. For some reason that makes me think of the Beetles tune – you know the one that says “got to be good look’n ‘cause he’s so hard to see.”  He does have feet down below his knees…  O.K., the fact that this moth is a she, not a he, makes the Beetle reference even more irresponsible on my part. Sorry. Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway because this moth was fascinating even before I knew what to call it in other languages.

It was apparent by the freshness of this specimen that it had just emerged from a cocoon. I surmised that it flew to this perch and sat the night out – a conclusion that proved completely wrong. When I stepped around the stick to get a different view, I realized that the cocoon was right in plain sight only inches from where the moth sat. The structure, a tightly woven brown bag of cardboard consistency, was nearly invisible underneath the angled portion of the branch (see last photo). A path of fine white hairs led from the cocoon opening to the moth.  This fellow was just out.

It might seem odd for any moth to emerge as an adult in late September, but this is the normal flight time for this species. Emerging as late as October, they have the ability to fly at temperatures as low as 40 degree F according to one reference. This also explains some of the hairiness aspect as well (insulation), but not all of it. Even the caterpillars of the Tolype are exceedingly hairy. They munch upon broadleaf leaves during the warm summer months and use their hairiness to obscure their profile.

Tolypes are in the same family as the more familiar tent caterpillars. Unlike the tenters, they are solitary and do not make a web nest as a larvae. But, like the tenters, they apparently overwinter as eggs and the adults become hairless stiff corpses by the time the snow flies (in other words, hair today-gone tomorrow). That family name, by the way, is mouthful -Lasiocampidae.  In idiot Latin I would translate it as “day campers who undergo laser hair removal” but I’m fairly certain I am mis-interpreting the hair removal part!


September 19, 2011

Pocket Squirrel

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

Preview post

It’s not my usual style to focus on “pets” because this is a nature – as in wild – oriented blog. My recent introduction to Velcro, however, forced my hand. First of all, because he was a rescued wild orphan, he was not technically a pet and I am not in danger of denying any of my card-carrying naturalist instincts. Secondly, Velcro may be the only one of his kind you will ever see. This means it is my duty to present him to you. In truth, I was actually swayed by the totally unprofessional and unmanly urge to declare “Awww, how adorable” when in his presence. This is one cute little creature and I will not allow myself to be the sole victim of his allure. Who is Velcro? He is a Southern flying Squirrel.

Discovered as an orphan some months ago, this miniature mammal was put under the care of the interpretive staff at the Stoney Creek Nature Center (one of the other parks in “my” Huron Clinton Metropark system). Under their able care he has blossomed into a healthy six month old flying squirrel. To describe him as active would not do him justice. Out of the cage and into the hands of his human handler, Velcro freely skitters up the arm and eventually down into the pant pocket of Supervising Interpreter Doug Spiller. There he pokes out his head and waits for a finger massage behind the ear. After this therapeutic repast, he’s back up on Doug’s outstretched hand. From that high perch he rocked his head back and forth in order to judge the distance to the next human standing in the room (see below) and then launched into the air . We were his trees and he was a flying squirrel, after-all. Anyone within six feet was a potential tree.

I became the landing pad on that first jump but the squirrel soon bored of me (that kind of thing often happens to me). He sought out the company of the all other human trees in the room before finally settling on one of my fellow interpreters, Julie.  She cheated, of course. Julie offered a fresh acorn in her outstretched hand and Velcro could not pass up such a prize. He worked on that acorn for the remainder of our visit. Fortunately, Julie’s ploy served to settle the thing down so that I could take some focused shots.

This was his first acorn, but he went at it like a pro – first popping off the cap and then proceeding to gouge out the meat. Doug mentioned that, even though he doesn’t eat them, Velcro has been in the habit of destroying pencil erasers in a like fashion. “There is not a pencil in this place that is safe” he quiped. We all laughed. Velcro had us in such a state of amazement that we lost sight of the fact that this animal could pee in our mouths at any moment (but that too would have been considered a cute thing, wouldn’t it?).

O.K. now let’s get past the “adorable stuff” and try to salvage the reputation of this blog (if indeed there is any reputation to save). It’s time for a reality check here. Flying squirrels are omnivores. So, you see, Julie was potentially risking her life in that room. These squirrels eat nuts and fruits, but they also take in insects and carrion. As a matter of fact, one of these squirrels actually killed and ate a Yellow-breasted Sapsucker that was confined with it! Thank God that the nut satisfied Velcro.

As a Southern Flying Squirrel, Velcro represents a species of rodent that doesn’t reveal itself too often. Officially called Glaucomys volans , a name which means “flying gray mouse” in hybrid Greek and Latin, these diminutive squirrels are actually quite common. They inhabit hardwood forest situations and prefer park-like areas with ample space between the trees. Some estimates put their average population at 2 to 6 per acre in good habitat. Winter populations can exceed 20 or more in a single tree cavity. But, because they are exclusively nocturnal (thus the reason for the huge eyes) they aren’t spotted too often. Thus they are considered scarce. It’s like a fellow told me the other day “You know owls must be very very rare”, he said “I never see any.” Of course, this was a fellow who went to bed at 10:15 pm every night. I did not bring up the subject of those “extremely rare” flying squirrels to this guy lest I ended up saying something insensitive.

To be truthful, I’ve only seen wild flying squirrels on one occasion (a bunch of young squirrels in a bluebird house nest), but I have heard them a number of times in the darkness. They chirp like birds. Considering that they engage in a type of flight, this might seem like a logical sound. Flying squirrels do not fly, but they do glide. Employing a stretchy flap of skin located between the wrist and ankle called the patagium, the creatures leap into the air, open up like a kite, and drift over to their desired landing point.  The flat tail serves as a stabilizer (not as a rudder) in much the same way as the tail serves on a kite.

Velcro did not need to use his flap while jumping the relatively short distance between the humans in the room. You can see the extra skin located behind his front feet in the accompanying photos. It is covered by a fine coating of hair lined with a neat racing stripe. A stiff cartilage rod, extending out from the wrist, supports the leading edge of the flap when extended. Otherwise it is folded back along the body.

It is worth noting that flying squirrels have been recorded in the wild as spanning gaps of 130 feet or more between trees.  Their flight path always takes a slight downward angle and is concluded by a quick upward turn just before hitting their spot Observers have noted that they often shut their eyes for part of the journey in order to avoid eye injury from passing twigs, etc. Any further distance and they’d need to wear a pair of goggles. Wait, I just had the image of a moose go through my mind…

September 14, 2011

A Silver Spotted Sand Sipper

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:08 pm

I nearly stepped on it. The hairy brown creature visually melted into the sandy parking lot upon which it sat. Only the bright underwing markings called the stationary Silver-spotted Skipper my attention and saved it from a flattening experience. Normally these active butterflies dart off at the slightest movement – they skip about as if charged with an excess of morning espressos (thus the family name). It was unusual, therefore, that this fellow seemed so utterly focused that a lumbering giant did not disturb it. Either it was sick, drunk, or texting.  It was drunk…sorta.

You see, this butterfly was “puddling” – a male dominated activity which involves sucking up minerals and salts from the soil or mud (similar to football). So, you could say that it was drunk on mineral water. The sand was moist from recent showers and apparently offered an irresistible brew of salt and other soil leached minerals. During the mating season, male butterflies use this extra intake to help boost their virility. This late in the season, butterfly virility is misplaced. Silver-spotted skippers over-winter as pupae and the adults die off at summer’s end. Perhaps our hairy little fellow was planning on going out in a blaze of glory?

All guesswork aside, this puddling incident allowed me a chance to get a good close look at this, Michigan’s largest skipper. As a group, skippers are separated from the so-called “true” butterflies because of their moth-like characteristics. For starters, they have chunky bodies which are heavily coated with layer of setae (not hair) and relatively small wings. They flitter about nervously and never pause to glide like their wide-winged relatives. In some circles they are referred to as being “the least developed of the butterflies” as if they are Neanderthals in a world of sapiens.  They are not primitive, however – this design has fostered hundreds of U.S. species.

Other obvious skipper features are the hooked antennae and the large widely spaced eyes. The antennae are clubbed in typical butterfly fashion, but they have a distinct hook at the end unlike any other type of butterfly. The large eyes? Well they seem to impart a slightly more sophisticated look than seen on the mug of a Cabbage White butterfly or one of the other “more developed” butterflies.  And having a bigger head must mean something as well. I’m not sure what, but perhaps Silver-spotted Skippers are frustrated mathematicians stuck inside brutish hairy bodies.

I could not get over the density of the body “fur” on this individual (see above and detail here). Ignoring the scale of the photo (the skipper had a wingspan of around 2 inches) the creature looked like a winged muskrat. I’m sure that drinking too much mineral water on my part would assist my perception of flying muskrats. I know that licking sand would probably produce a similar result. A very un-muskratlike stripe pattern is apparent on the back if you examine it closely.

Finally, I leave you with the image of the tongue. It is a flexible hollow instrument through which the skipper sucks up nectar and/or mineral water with equal dexterity. Notice how the skipper holds it at 90 degree angle as if it were a bendy straw. In a way it is an ultimate bendy straw with flex points at every segment.

I left the puddling skipper to his own thoughts. I can only guess how he will spend his waning days, but I’m sure he won’t skip the good parts.

September 10, 2011

Popp’n Pods

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:18 pm

I’m not sure there is anything new to say about Spotted Jewelweeds unless I start making things up. Did you know that these plants will cure insomnia, urushoil rashes, and kleptomania? Well, they don’t – I just made up two of these things! Of course the insomnia and klepto things are ridiculous fabrications on my part, but the rash thing is not of my making. Urushoil is the substance produced by Poison Ivy, and Jewelweed has long been touted as a “cure” for ivy rashes. A persistent folk belief maintains that Jewelweed juice serves as a poison ivy antidote. Unfortunately, this has never been proven. There isn’t a lick of proof that the juicy crushed stems do anything more than cleanse the affected areas (as would water or grape juice). Yet, the idea remains.

You know, this plant really doesn’t need the false label as a Poison ivy cure to make it “worthwhile.” It has many many worthy – and tangible – attributes. Take the showy flowers, for instance. Late summer/early fall is the time for these plants to produce blooms of near orchid quality. The speckled orange structures looks like wrinkled cornucopias suspended on delicate threads. They have five petals, but they are hard to distinguish in their own right. One petal forms an upper canopy, two are fused to form a large lower lip, and two small lateral (side) petals balance out the presentation.

A long curved spur serves as a nectar receptacle.  Pollinators are encouraged to touch down on the ample landing pad and crawl deep into the flower to reach the rich nectar source in the spur (40% sugar content according to one reference). In so doing they are dabbed with pollen from a chandelier-like anther pad on the roof of the flower tunnel. Some bumblebees and yellow jackets, however, have been known to bypass this route and cut sipping holes directly into the spur itself.

You might be tempted to declare the before mentioned bee types as scoundrels (worthy of stinging remarks), but you should consider that Spotted Jewelweeds also produce non-opening green flowers that do not depend on insect pollination, thank you very much. These unassuming closed flowers are self pollinating. Called “cleistogomous” flowers, this neat Greek word means “secret marriage” and it implies exactly what you think about what happens behind closed doors on this plant. Take a look at the image below to see a few of these secret flowers above and to the left of the showy blossoms (I’ll leave to your imagination as to what is going on inside them!).

Both the self fertilized and “normally” fertilized flowers eventually turn into seed pods. These explosive pods are all that the Jewelweed really needs to capture our attention. If you have never popped a Jewelweed pod then you have not lived. If you have not done this repeatedly then you have not really popped a Jewelweed pod. I have put together a short sequence (view here) to show you what Jewelweed popp’n really is.

In short, the bean-like pods become pressurized as they mature (see beginning photo). They possess a central spring with four or five large triangular seeds attached. All it takes is the slightest external contact to set them off. In a blurred motion, the five parts of the pod suddenly separate and curl up to the tip. This action hurls the seeds hither and yon and separates the pod from the plant (see below). The actual hurling distance is only a foot or two, but it is dramatic.

When a pod is fully triggered is appears like a peanut. A drop of rain or even a brush of air will set them off. Thinner pods take a bit more coxing, but they too will pop with a little prompting.

So there you have it. Seek out your nearest spotted Jewelweed patch and go at it my friend. I challenge you to do this only once. Like ruffle potato chips you just can’t treat yourself to one. You will be doing the Jewelweed a favor (it reproduces exclusively by seed) and, in turn, curing any boredom you may have.

September 5, 2011

Daddy’s Got Milk Too

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:13 pm

It’s getting late in the year for Michigan birds to still have young in the nest, but for a pair of Mourning Doves residing on a drain pipe outside Kensington Nature Center the season is still prime. Doves famously produce multiple broods per year and these doves are just putting the finishing touches on their third set of twins.  Fortunately, these prolific birds are very tolerant of human gawkers, so they are quite photogenic. Put these two factors together and you have a late opportunity to see suckling squabs.

Normally, of course, the term “suckling” would exclusively refer to baby mammals – as in suckling pigs or suckling Snow Leopards – because baby mammals suck milk from their momma’s mammaries.  This is a pretty exclusive club limited to haired organisms with teats.  Although lacking in teats, members of the pigeon family also produce a form of milk to feed their young. As a matter of fact, these birds go one up on the mammalian model by providing a physiological method for both male and female pigeons to feed their young in this manner. There ain’t no male Snow Leopard alive that could (or would!) allow his young to suckle upon him.

We waited for some time at the dove nest to see this milking action take place. I say “we”, because a small group of folks had gathered around the spot by the time the event actually occurred. All it took was one person staring up at the nest spot beneath the eave to attract my attention. Soon a few of my naturalist friends joined me, along with some additional patrons, to admire one of the adult birds and its two chicks (from this point on referred to as squabs). We had quite a conversation going on in our small group, although I was trying to concentrate through my view finder. Fortunately the birds didn’t seem to mind too much, but I was fearful that our action would deter the other adult, and blow my chance to see the milking.   Fortunately, someone finally asked “what do they feed their young?” and I mentioned milk.  For some reason this quieted things down immediately as all (except the naturalists) pondered over the potential location of the nipples on a bird.

I should have explained that pigeon milk is made of “desquamated cells sloughed off the germinal epithelium of the crop” but, in all honesty, I did not have that phrase on the tip of my tongue at the time. Pigeon milk is a curdy yellowish liquid secreted from the pre-stomach pouch known as the crop.  The substance is rich in protein and fat and compares favorably with cow’s milk. I found out later through my research, that it also smells like cheese. And, lest we forget within these few short paragraphs, both sexes produce and distribute it.

I initially snapped a few shots of the scene just to record the incredible ugliness of the squabs (they have big bright eyes, but their tubular nostrils are features that only a mother could love) and to admire their palatial nest. Mourning Doves are among the worst nest makers on the planet. They normally lay a pile of loose sticks down and call it “art”. These structures are normally so bad that you can look up through the bottom in order to count the eggs within (this number is always two, but you get my point). This nest, being the third in the same spot, was a solid mound of sticks rivaling any robin’s nest in the area (see here). There was nothing about this nest for the doves to mourn over, except for the fact that it was cemented together by ample applications of poop.

Eventually the other parent bird arrived on the scene. No one could be sure whether this was the male or the female, but in this case it didn’t matter.  The bird sat on the edge of the roof for some time and nervously bobbed its head up and down. We eventually backed away to a respectful distance and she/he then flew into the nest. The adults switched places. The new arrival prepared itself for suckling as the first flew off to pasture.

Upon facing its charges, the adult opened its mouth and both young stuck their beaks down her maw.  Doves suck up liquids, so it is no stretch to say that these young were suckling. Heads bobbed up and down for several uncomfortable-looking minutes as the hungry squabs eagerly ingested the crop contents. This was the first time that I have witnessed this act and I must say that I am glad to be a male mammal.

After the deed was completed, one of the squabs was left with a drip of liquid hanging off its beak and a seed stuck to the side of its head.  Mom/Dad looked relieved and peace settled upon the poopy nest and its occupants.

The explanation of the seed is simple. In practice, Mourning Doves only feed their young pure milk for the first 3-4 days of their existence. For the next period, from 4- 12 days, the parents begin to introduce an increasing amount of seeds into the mix. They gradually wean their swabs of milk entirely after 12 days and from that point on exclusively deliver seeds. Since these squabs were both well along, it is likely that only a quarter of this feeding act actually involved milk and that the remainder was seed based.  Sure, you could say that we weren’t witness to a true suckling event, but let’s not get all sucky about it.

By the way, the literature records that main feeding duty falls to the male parent after the squabs reach 16 days of age.  If the dad doves ever figure out how to produce their own eggs they could take over the world (if they develop teats, then we humans will also be doomed).

September 1, 2011

Is that a Dagger I See Before Me?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:52 pm

Macbeth was hallucinating, of course, when he envisioned the instrument of death before him and uttered “Is that a dagger which I see before me?” It was a bloody dagger. I, on the other hand, was not hallucinating – or if I was, it was a pretty bland hallucination – when I saw a dagger before me.  My dagger, which I saweth but a fortnight ago, was an American Dagger caterpillar (not instruments of death unless one attempted to shove several dozen up someone’s nose).

Dagger Moth caterpillars are remarkable looking beasts. It is hard to pass by one of them without exclaiming “what a remarkable looking beast.”  They are hairy beyond the norm, about 3 inches long at maturity, and equipped with multiple hair tuft antennae.  To be truthful, these larvae are not actually covered with hair. If these structures were true hairs then we’d looking at the world’s most bizarre mammal. They are technically called setae – hairs that are not hairs but hair-like.

The setae tend to be yellow on the younger caterpillars and often turn to whitish gray on the mature worms.  My example was a mature beast yet as bright a yellow as the day is long (whatever that means), so it a bit atypical in that regard.  The long black antennae-like tufts are called “lashes” (a term made up by the Revlon folks I believe). There are two sets of lashes on the first and third abdominal segments of the Dagger caterpillar and a single lash on the 8th segment. These probably serve as sensory devices rather than beauty enhancement features, but they could be dual function attachments. For instance, I am fairly certain that Beyoncé has never walked into a wall and that we can thank her early warning lash system for that.

American Dagger moth larvae eat a wide variety of tree leaves. In my experience, they seem to prefer maples. Half consumed leaves littering the ground beneath a tree betray their presence long before the critters are spotted. Piles of barrel shaped poops on your car hood will also give them away. When actually discovered and touched, the caterpillars will bat their lashes and withdraw into a characteristic “J” shape. Further harassment will induce them to roll into a ball. They say that the hairs…er, I mean setae…can be irritating, so it’s best not to irritate a Dagger larvae too much lest he “sheddeth his prickly hairs into thee.”

The caterpillars eventually make their way to the ground in the fall and seek shelter under logs or boards. There they will form a cocoon and spend the winter as a pupae. This cocoon incorporates the body hairs into the silken wrap. Beneath all that fuzz, Dagger caterpillars are smooth green gummy worms. If Shakespeare had known about American Dagger caterpillars he would have penned “Beneath dense setae green nakedness we do see-tay.”

The adult moths, which emerge the following spring, are unassuming gray beasts which blend into their surroundings. Like other members of their ilk they possess a cryptic image of a dagger upon their forewings. This image is very obscure, to say the least, but it is the reason behind the family name (there are 70 plus kinds of dagger moths). I’m thinking that bad eyesight was involved somewhere.  If Macbeth saw this fuzzy image of a dagger floating before him, he would have said “is that a fuzzy blob I see before me…am I to commit murder by shoving these up the nose of my intended victim?”

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