Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 29, 2011

Feathered Frustration

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:52 pm

My latest encounter with a Red-tailed Hawk was not exactly a personal one. It was not upon a wind-swept moor where the noble bird locked eyes with me as it perched upon the gnarled branch of a lone tree. There are no moors around here – windswept or otherwise. In this encounter we were separated by thick glass, the bird was perched on a split rail fence and was oblivious to my presence. There were a number of people standing about me and I only knew half of them.  Still, it was a notable occasion.

The location was not a zoo. It was at the window looking out onto the feeding station at the Kensington Metropark Nature Center. Normally the winter scene would include a busy flock of titmice, chickadees, tree sparrows, downy woodpeckers, along with a red squirrel or two. Turkeys are frequent visitors here as well. On this morning a Red-tailed Hawk suddenly flew in and put us all on notice. Normally such a visit would be prompted by the chance to grab one of the above mentioned birds (not the Turkey, mind you). This bird made no attempt to nab the other birds, but was instead focused on a late season Chipmunk.

The chipmunk apparently dashed under the cover of a downed split rail bordering the feeding area before the Red-tail could lay a talon on it. Rather than give it up, however, the hawk stalked about on the ground around the Chipmunk’s lair for a long time and eyed up the situation from all angles. The bird would stop and try to get a fix on the hole with a side to side movement of its head and then reach out with a grabbing motion of the talons.  It repeated this action time and time again. Leaving the spot to perch up on one of the high posts, the hawk would turn his head back to the original location and return to renew the predation attempt.

The center’s speaker system provided an explanation of the bird’s persistence. A loud “chip…chip…chip” could be heard. It appeared that the chipmunk was buried deep within a narrow space under the log. It could not escape, but was safe enough to give the hawk an onslaught of verbal insults. I hate to ascribe emotions to any animal, but the hawk did seem irritated by the whole thing.

As a (nature) interpreter I am always looking for opportunities to, well… frankly, interpret (nature). I realize that this can be an annoying trait at times, and for some it is annoying all the time, but it is a professional habit not easily broken (it is my…nature). I was there with a few fellow interpreters and a family with their flock of children in tow. They were clearly fascinated by seeing such a large bird only a few feet away. The fact that this bird was active, rather than sitting like a lump on a log (or a gnarled limb) added to its appeal. The situation was unusual on several levels – beyond the fact that this poor family was out-numbered by the interpreters in the room- and it was tempting to point out a few of things while the educational moment was before us.

Most chipmunks are sleeping down in their winter dens by now, but this wasn’t the most fascinating detail to point out. Besides, the Chipper was not in sight. The bird’s behavior was grist for interpretation. Although seeming odd, it was actually in keeping with the varied tactics displayed by most birds of prey. If they don’t make the initial grab they will slink along the ground like cats to finish their pursuit. This bird was a mature bird displaying the brick red tail of the species.  It would be nice to at least identify the bird to the assembled folks.

I took an interpretive jab at the youth standing closest to me. “Look at that tail,” I said “You can see why it is called a Red-tailed Hawk can’t you?”  The youth responded immediately and clearly. “But it has an orange tail” he said – as if to imply that it should be called an orange-tailed hawk. “Well,” I awkwardly responded, “it is…um… sorta orangish, you are right, but more of a brick-red which is why it’s called a…” But, my sentence was not to be finished because I had lost the child. He was looking down at his cell phone screen and wandering away from the window.

I completed the conversation in my mind. “I did not name the hawk, damn it. MOST normal ADULT people would see that color as red. Sure it’s not really red-red, but smart people are able to define things which are brick-red as ‘red.’ You can’t call this thing a Brick-tailed Hawk because that would be stupid. It would be even stupider to call it an Orange-tailed Hawk. The original description actually calls it the Jamaican Hawk and makes no mention of the tail at all!”

So, for my sake, please pretend you are the person standing next to me on that day. Take a look at the video  here (or below) and observe the Red-tail performing some typically atypical behavior. Look at his tail and say to yourself “so, that’s why they are called Red-tailed Hawks.” Thank you for being an adult.

December 24, 2011

Winter Websites

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:06 pm

Although we haven’t seen too much of it (yet) in S.E. Michigan this season, a dusting of winter white can be magical. Oh sure, we like to protest about ANY snow – as if it were somehow aberrant or a sign of some shocking global climate change – but I believe we do this more as a conversation starter than anything else. I say this, because if negative snow talk is not merely a conversation enzyme, then this means we are all simpletons with the short-term memory skills of porcupines. No, we are not all simpletons. I have woven more than a few blog entries around this snow idea and I certainly couldn’t be a simpleton! Right? I mean, I know how to break the plastic collar off the lid of a half-gallon of egg nog before opening it. And, I proudly add, have done it countless times. Not even a porcupine can do that (as far as I can recall).

A dusting of snow hurts nothing. It can actually enhance the appearance of life. Such an event places us inside a giant snow globe (without the earthquake that precipitates the fake snow of a real snow globe). Everything is altered. A dead branch becomes part of a Japanese watercolor and the shriveled top of a Queen Anne’s Lace is transformed into a lacey basket. A yearling deer, which is normally a large stupid animal with abnormally long facial whiskers, remains a large stupid animal with abnormally long facial whiskers once it is baptized with snow, but two out of three ain’t bad.

Perhaps the most unusual snow transformation occurs with spider webs. Normally associated with sultry summer days or dewy fall mornings, there are always a few silken webs around to interact with early winter snowfalls. A gentle windless fall will end up with more than a few ensnared snowflakes hanging tenuously on nearly invisible threads. In the absence of a piece of felt or the sleeve of an ugly Christmas sweater, a web-caught snowflake is the best way to view individual snow crystals before they melt.

I took a few moments to examine a few flakes during the latest dusting. After shooing away one of those large stupid creatures with abnormally large facial whiskers, I noticed a few flakes in suspension and decided to present them for your adoration here. The snowfall on this particular morning was in the nature of clumped columnar crystals. Still, the resulting flakes looked like clusters of perfect quartz crystals. Magical? Yes.

It is tempting to assume that these spider webs are remnants left from earlier in the season. That multiple sub-freezing nights have either eliminated all of the spiders themselves or driven them into deep hibernation. I assumed that was the case when examining an artful piling of snow on some scarlet wild rose leaves. There was a lacing of webs between the hardy leaves which held a garland of snowflakes. It was amazing enough that such seemingly tender leaflets were weathering the season in such bold form. Without the snow, the web encircled cluster could have been pictured in mid-autumn. The webs, at least in this case, were not old autumn left-overs, however.

Tucked away in the slight curl of one of the upper leaves, the web-master was still in place. It was a Long-jawed Orb Weaver – extended and very slow moving – but it was alive (see detail photo above). The temperature at the time was 29 degrees F. Fortified by internal anti-freeze, the creature was apparently harboring thoughts of overwintering.

Temperatures in the 50’s from a few days earlier probably prompted it into a simple web-making mode. I doubt that it will feed on the resulting catch of snowflakes but I do wonder about something. They say that magical things happen to all the creatures of the earth on Christmas Eve. Dumb animals are said to speak on this night. Since deer are the dumbest of all, I’ll bet they become golden tongued orators. Will our cold little spider indulge in a tiny frozen gnat snow cone if she collects a dusting of snow? And, will she giggle at the abnormally long facial whiskers on the deer.


December 19, 2011

Dave’s Little Owl

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:11 pm

No one can own something that is wild, but one can claim some type of ownership by “discovering” some wild thing or having it named after you. Still, Pikes Peak wasn’t owned by Lt. Zebulon Pike (note that the name has no apostrophe) and Thompson can’t claim any of his gazelles as personal property (even though they do have a possessive apostrophe on their name). By this measure, Dave’s owl is not his either – not only was the species “discovered” hundreds of years ago, but tens of thousands have been seen over the ensuing centuries. He can claim some tiny bit of credit for one particular owlet, however.

The owl in question is a Saw-whet Owl.  This type of owl was first described in 1788 by a 40 year old German naturalist named Johann Friedrich Gmelin. These diminutive owls (weighing in at a mere 3 oz. or so) are not found in Germany, but are common fall migrants and regular winter residents here in North America. Gmelin used a specimen sent to him from Nova Scotia- a region known as Acadia. The bird doesn’t belong to him either but his claim remains as the name sometimes attached to the end of the scientific name (as in Aegolius acadicus Gmelin).   Because they are so small and reclusive (by that I refer to the owl and not some tiny German naturalist), Saw-Whets are very hard to spot.  Because Dave spotted one recently, I can bring you this blog entry.

Dave (let’s call him that because his name actually is Dave) came banging on the front door of the nature center early one morning. Dave is not German. He is direct from England and exhibits a gentle “across the pond” accent. So, you will have to add your own internal fakey Dick Van Dyke chimney sweeper banter in order to capture the feel, if not the reality, of his declaration “Oi’ve found wun – I found a Saw-et Owl.” He was so excited and could hardly contain himself. “I ahd to tell somebuddy,” he beamed.  He’s an experienced birder and has seen these birds before, but this one was special because he found it on his own. All other cases involved someone else finding one first and then describing where to find it.  This one was “his.” I knew his feeling, or could at least imagine it, because I have yet to be the first spotter of a Saw-whet over many years of looking. I was always the third or thirteen hundredth in line.

I asked him to show me the bird (willing to be the second in this case) and he excitedly volunteered to lead me to the spot. “You know, Oi wuz just readin Birder’s World,” he sez….says…, “and there’s a paart that sez ‘what t’watch for’. There’s the Saw-et Owl. It sez to look for the birds ah-fter a still noight and low in the shrubb’ry.  I come out this mornin’ – after a full moon and a still night – lookin’ low in the shrubb’ry and oi found wun!” We soon reached the location and there, perched prettily under the protective cover of a tangled mass of grape and honey suckle, was our…excuse me…his bird.

As usual, this Saw-whet paid absolutely no attention to us as it roosted. Although it cracked open one eye to confirm our existence, it remained still. His roost was a classic Saw-whet site with a dense covering for a roof, an airy open bottom, and a location low in the “shrub’ry.” It was the type of spot I’ve eyed hundreds of times before, except that all my spots lacked the presence of a Saw-whet. Dave’s enthusiasm was infectious and I thanked him for the opportunity as we returned to the center. It wuz ‘is Saw-whet alroight.

There was a sizable pile of white droppings under this perch and it appeared that the bird was a regular at this location, so we suspected it would be there for others to see in the future. Even though it vacated the spot for a few days afterward, it eventually returned and has been there for the better part of a week now. Dozens have made the pilgrimage to re-discover it, picture it, and then declare it cute and perfect.

I went back out the other day to see the tiny owl again.  A fresh snow had blanketed the scene and the day was quite cold. Dave’s bird appeared to be perched slightly higher than his earlier choice. His head was completely turned around and his face was buried deeply into the feather patch between his shoulder blades. The eyes were mere slits. The flakes of grapple snow sat lightly upon his puffed out feathers.  Again I took a few shots of the content subject and returned to my office.

It wasn’t until later that I looked at my photos and received a bit of a shock. The owl was sitting on a mouse! (see above and detail here). The grape vine sprouting out from under his feet turned out to be a tail connected to the whole body of a Deer Mouse. Of all the predatory birds of the world, there are few that would choose to nap atop their prey. Unlike most owls, these birds often cache their prey for later use and have been known to wedge captured critters into convenient tree crotches. So, such an act as resting on top of a future meal wouldn’t be out of character. This was the first time I have ever seen a Saw-whet with its prey in hand, so to speak. Actually I didn’t see it because it wasn’t noticed until the scene was in digital form upon a screen, but no matter.

With this “discovery” I have now taken on some unique ownership of this bird. As far as I know, no one else came out to view this bird on that particular day which means that no-one else saw it sitting on a mouse and dreaming mouse-eating dreams. I, the French-Canadian Irishman joined the Englishman Dave and the German Johann for a unique claim on this Saw-whet.

December 13, 2011

Hair Today, Back Tomorrow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:45 pm

It’s time for one of those simple blog posts.  Nothing heavy to digest – just a basic “let’s talk about the wonders of nature” type entry.  I’d call it blog light, but that might imply that one could get drunk on the heavier stuff or, worse yet, it might imply that “heavy” means important and “light” mean un-important. This would further insinuate that I believe most of my posts to be important – to which you might rightfully respond “well la-de-da, aren’t we getting a bit heady and self important.” This could end up with some sort of occupy e-movement (where you end up living in a tent in my front yard).  Well, let’s just shake on it and agree that in this case light means slightly enlightening.  O.K.? Good.

So, what do I have to offer? My goodness, if it isn’t a wad of hair stuck onto a tree with some white foam attached. I’ll bet Gerry is going to say that this is some sort of animal poo or vomitous evidence of a sick squirrel. No, my friends, this is a Tussock Moth cocoon and egg case.  The cocoon is empty but the eggs are full of spring promise.

Before going too much further, let me explain that such structures can commonly be found along the winter trail.  This one was attached to the protected side of a Red Maple tree trunk. It was located about 4 feet up from the ground. The cocoon was woven tight to the trunk and the Tussock caterpillar that made it used a combination of silk and body fibers to finish it. Tussock caterpillars are members of a family of hairy caterpillars (at the risk of getting heavy, this group is called Lamantriidae). These larvae look like walking toothbrushes with distinct tufts or clusters of hair along their backs.  They virtually shed their body hairs and weave them into the matrix of the cocoon as they go. Naturally, they are quite naked by the time they are encased within their hair house (shocking but true).

The larvae make their cocoons during the warm season and quietly pupate inside (wouldn’t we all like to indulge in some quiet pupation at times?).  Most cocoon-making moth larvae overwinter in these cases and therefore weave the silk into a tight fibrous bag able to endure both water and woodpecker. Our Tussock friends, however, have so such ambitions. Their final result is a translucent gossamer sack. The pupae (the naked pupae, I might add) is highly visible inside. They will emerge as adults long before winter arrives.

The males emerge as medium sized moths with brown patterned wings. The females emerge as flightless creatures without wings.  It may not be polite to call them fat, but they are little more than egg-filled abdomens. Of course, it is their cocoons that make them look fat.  Because they can’t fly away, the gals hang onto their old cocoon and begin to waft pheromones (love perfumes) into the air. Amorous males, enticed by the irresistible scent of delicate woman-hood, locate the females and mate with them. The fertilized female then lays her egg mass right on the cocoon. She dies, he dies and that is it. The eggs remain to carry on the family line through to the next spring.

A detailed look at the egg case reveals a cluster of hundreds of whitish eggs under the dry foamy coating (see above). Each has a Kirk Douglas dimple in the center. The coating serves to protect them through the cold season, but tough shells and plenty of natural anti-freeze also contribute to their survival.

Since the eggs will be in place all winter long, this gives you plenty of time to find a few. If, while you are searching, you happen upon an empty hairy gossamer cocoon lacking this egg cluster, then you have come upon the former abode of a male Tussock Moth (see below). Please note the rumpled empty pupal skin and the dirty socks left lying about inside and feel free to give them a condescending Tussock “Tsk tsk.”

December 8, 2011

What Does it Mean?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:37 pm

A trail walk during the first gray days of winter often creates a sense of inner questioning. “Where has the year gone?” you ask, or “why is it snowing so soon?” you ask. Perhaps, if the day is cold enough and gray enough you might even find yourself asking “what does it all mean?”  Like an introspective Scottish poet walking the chilly moors we tend to get dark and moody thoughts (“why in the heck am I out here in the bloody moors in a kilt and no underwear” type thoughts). This latter question is a meaningless query – and by latter I mean the “what does it mean” and not the kilt conundrum. Because of the lack of definition of the word “it”, this is an undefined question. How can one answer that anyway – without coming up with the conclusion that the meaning of life is “42” or something like that?

You pass the lonely snow-covered picnic table and your feelings get darker. It is sinking in a pool of water and now useless. It is alone and useless. All the other picnic tables are stacked for the winter – looking as if they are comforting each other.  No, this one is alone, useless, and wet.

If one turns to the Great Blue Heron perching in the brown cattails, it too looks rather picnic table like. Most sensible herons have flown south for the winter, but there are always a dedicated few that stick it out. This one, although maintaining a stern demeanor, looks doubtful about his decision. He is not looking so “great” at the moment but he is definitely “blue.” He is cold and gray and wet. “Why is that idiot taking my picture,” he thinks. “Leave me alone, I am counting the days until spring.  Spring will never come. I hate you.”

I look down to the snowy board walk and there I see that I am not the only one who has taken this darkening path. Several other idiots have also passed by since the snowfall. Although I’m sure the human tracks were made by sensible folks, I am not comforted by the fact that an opossum and a fox squirrel have chosen the same route as mine. I am in the company of the simple and the dim-witted. Squirrels, which jump at the chance to flatten themselves at every road crossing, and the ‘possums who showed them how to do it. Winter opossums will eat other frozen dead opossums or flattened squirrels without thought. What kind of life is that? Are we all opossums wearing kilts? Are squirrels really running the planet? Is a squirrel without nuts a female or is it hungry?

There wasn’t much going on this particular day. A creepy little Brown Creeper did it’s best to stay out of camera distance. These birds are well named because they creep along and pick out insects from bark crannies using their long curved bills. Creepers are pretty little things, but I can’t really show you much of this one because my bird was being creepy and aloof. He made it a point to stay out of reach. Winter has arrived and there is no time for idiot photography. Creep.

By the time I reached the craggy old silver maple by the lakeshore I was ready to admit that I was not looking forward to this winter. I really thought I was ready, but the grayness of the day was getting to me. Then I spotted a potential answer to my useless “what does it mean” question. There was a clearly outlined Chinese character in the bark of this tree. O.K., it was not clearly Chinese but it was Chinese-like (better than being picnic-table or heron-like). Perhaps this meant something like “go forth and conquer” or “life is a determined heron.”  Perhaps it would give me some inspiration.

Unfortunately, I did look up the symbol later and it appears to resemble the character for “giant.” That was about as helpful as “42”. Upon closer examination I could see that the pattern was actually made by a bark beetle. A small simple bark beetle. The darkened passageways indicate the life journey of one beetle grub as it ate its way through the thin cambium layer where bark met wood. Upon further consideration, I  came to the final conclusion that this grub writing looked more like a copyright symbol – you know the “c” within a circle. The circle was squared, but the “c” was fairly clear.

This final thought did peel away the layers of my early winter funk. Perhaps this magnificent tree was copyrighted by God. All the meaning of life came back to me in one tremendous rush. The table was not lonely, only resting. The Heron was pensive, not peeved. The Creeper was creeping and the possums were trotting as they should. The squirrels were feeding the ‘possums through their stupidity. I am filling this blog posting with stupidity. It all made sense for one magic moment.

There was only one small problem that tempered my epiphany. According to the calendar winter is not really here yet. So, my dark winter thoughts were jumping the gun a bit. I might still have to cut that Silver Maple down in order to get firewood and stay warm this winter. Will God strike me down if I do that? Stay tuned.

December 3, 2011

Cardinal Rule

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:05 pm

“Leaflets three, let it be. Berries white, then take flight” is a commonly used rhyme to remember the details of poison ivy identification. At least that is the way we humans remember it.  Although there are many perfectly fine- and many extremely beneficial – plants with three leaflets, there are far fewer with white berries. White berries are generally not good for us and it is a good rule to avoid white poison ivy berries. Again, I’m talking human beings here, because we are about the only complex beings that are allergic to the stuff. Nearly every other regional creature is un-affected by the urushoil found in poison ivy and many of those eat the fruits with gusto.

Although mammals such as Deer Mice and Deer will eat them, birds are far and away the largest consumer. Over 60 species of North American species have been recorded eating poison ivy berries. We’re not sure how many actually like them (most humans will eat liver or okra, for instance, but a large percentage of these folks will do so only when threatened at gunpoint). That, of course, is beside the point. Technically poison ivy fruit is not considered a high-quality food because it is low in lipids, but since wild animals do not pay attention to USDA diet recommendations, they are avidly consumed. Poison Ivy berries make up for their deficits because they are extremely abundant.

For Cardinals the poison ivy ditty might easily be extended to say “when in red, on ivy be fed.” The flight part of the rhyme would refer to a quick “flight towards” and not a rapid “flight from.” I regularly pass under a heavily laden poison ivy vine during my daily travels and always spot a flock of cardinals in its branches.  Ask these red birds to do such a thing in the springtime and there would be blood on those red feathers (although it would be hard to see!). The guys would peck each other’s eyes out over the attentions of the females. I guess it is a sign of divine providence then that the poison ivy fruits ripen during the winter when the birds lose their animosity towards their fellow males. All are welcome at the poisoned table.

Such is the draw to a lush poison ivy patch that the cardinals also lose much of their skittish nature towards humans when feeding. It’s almost as if they know that two-legged gawkers will not approach them closely when they are imbibing on the forbidden man fruit. Thus the reason I could approach the birds pictured here. They saw me, yet they tolerated my feeble photographic and observational efforts.

As members of the Grosbeak family, Northern Cardinals have “gros” (large) beaks for cracking hard-shelled seeds. It is painfully obvious how honking big these beaks really are when you see them in clear focus. As opposed to being perfect and smooth, they are rather industrial looking. This beak also functions to quickly remove the fleshy outer portion of the ivy fruit so that the bird can reach the intended prize: the internal seeds. The ground under the ivy vine will be littered by discarded berry flesh by the end of the month. It also will be littered by poison cardinal poo.

My resulting photographs – especially those depicting a bright male or female redbird next to a patch of snow white ivy fruits – look very Christmas-like. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to use these on a future Christmas card for two reasons. First, I don’t send out Christmas Cards (unless threatened with a firearm) and secondly, I’m not sure what message would be relayed by sending out a depiction of Poison Ivy combined with a seasonal greeting. This could be a cardinal sin. If I subconsciously/on-purpose sent these cards to people that I don’t really like they might take it as a sign of affection because they are stupid.  I would be misleading them. People I do like, because they are smart, might take offense and threaten me with a firearm.




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