Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 28, 2012

On the Other Hand

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

I’m certain that thousands of folks have ventured to Brookside Cemetery in Tecumseh, MI this winter. There’s a lot to see and do in this quaint little town, but the burial ground has been the happening place as of late. Although a precious few may have been seeking solace there among the dead, most were actually out-of-towners in search of the living. As soon as a flock of White-winged Crossbills showed up on the rambling grounds, a flock of two-legged White-winged Crossbill watchers soon followed.  I was part of that human flock.

These peculiar little finches are winter visitors from the high northern taiga forests. Their appearance in Lower Michigan created a mild stir among birders and photographers. Crossbills regularly extend their winter range down to this neck of the woods, but such “irruptions” (as they are called) are undependable and sporadic.  A few years back they were even seen in cemeteries throughout NW Ohio and beyond. Why cemeteries? One might wonder if there is some creepy fascination with ancestor worship involved! The answer, however, lays not with what is below the ground at such places but what is growing above it – lots of evergreen trees.  Crossbills are evergreen seed specialists and the mature stands of spruce and hemlock found at places like Brookside Cemetery offer a rich source of food.

When I went, there were about 12 individuals twittering about the Hemlock trees – two of them were human and the rest were avian.  The birds were bunched into a tight flock (and the humans arranged in a loose flock around them). At first appearance the crossbills looked more like house sparrows because they were hopping around on the ground among the headstones.

Close examination revealed them to be a vari-colored bunch. Some -the male birds -were speckled with rose, orange, and off-yellow patches on their breast, back and rump. The female birds were yellowish olive and streaked with brown. All had the typical forked finch tail (say that three times) and all had two prominent wing bars. The wing marks, of course, are responsible for the common American name, although in Europe they are known as Two-barred Crossbills just to be contrary.  Yes, the Euro-name is actually better than ours, but let’s not make a big deal out of it.

In spite of the Europeans, the Crossbill part of the name is universal across the northern globe. There really is nothing else to call these things. Their bills are definitely crossed. This feature is unique among the vast array of bill oddities found in the bird world. Only a half dozen bird species have it and they are all finches in the crossbill clan.  In the case of the White-winged Crossbills, their lower mandibles project well out to the side and the tips do not meet – they are not even close.  This asymmetric feature goes against most evolutionary trends but it is not at cross-purposes with evolution. This is a perfect adaptation for prying open cones. The smaller billed White-winged Crossbills are adapted to feeding on the smaller cones of black spruce, white spruce, tamarack, and hemlock.

When a crossbill approaches a cone (while hanging upside down or while on a loose cone on the ground) it inserts the open beak into the space between the scales and moves the lower (the crooked) mandible sideways. This widens the gap and frees the seeds which are scooped out with the tongue or with a sweeping action of the severely hooked upper bill.  In the amount of time it takes to read those last few sentences a competent crossbill can pluck out two or three seeds. A slow crossbill could probably do 1. An un-crossed bill would be lucky to get .5 of a seed. In other words, these birds are really good at what they are designed to do. It has been estimated that they can extract over 3,000 seeds per day. Hemlock cones and seeds are very tiny (see below) , so it takes a lot to get a lot out of them.

There is one more amazing Crossbill fact that I’d like to fling at you before we leave these cemetery birds alone. The direction of the lower bill varies between individual birds. Some are right-handed (with the bill crossing to the right) and others are left-handed (with the bill crossing to the left). There are far more right-handed White-winged Crossbills than left handed ones.  In fact, the ratio is 3:1. This is not the case with other crossbill species. It doesn’t seem to impart any advantage one way or the other, so it is probably a random matter of genes.

Dorsal view of left-handed and right-handed crossbills

Soon all the lefties and righties will depart for the northland. We’ll have to wait another year or two before we get a chance to see another one at our local cemetery. In the meantime, please Rest in Peace er…, wait a minute…perhaps that was not the best thing to say.

February 23, 2012

Finding Mr. White

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:03 pm

As so often happens, I spotted something unusual as I was driving and could do little within sane driving laws about it. A small group of Canada Geese were flying toward the River Raisin and their route took them directly over the road ahead of me. A group of Canadians is hardly unusual these days – in fact, the fact that it was a small group was probably the most immediately notable thing about them.  There was one bird in this flock, however, that stood out even at 40 mph (O.K., I was actually going 55 mph and I’m fairly certain that I was within 10 miles of the true limit). It appeared much lighter than the rest.

The flock reached the air space over the river and turned to their right to head upstream. For a short distance we were paralleling each other and I could see that the light bird looked more like a white bird. Suspecting a Snow Goose, I vowed to follow the birds as far and as long as the actual direction of the road would allow. I wanted to confirm the sighting as best I could. Unfortunately, keeping that promise would have required leaving the pavement and cutting across a field, hitting a cat, and plowing through a few backyards. I wasn’t worried about the cat, but the rest of the scenario put me off.  I was forced to pull over to attempt a few quick photos. The flock quickly turned about and headed back downstream and allowed me a couple of out-the-window shots before disappearing behind the riverside tree line. I wasn’t able to re-locate the group over the next 20 minutes, so I gave up.

My photos, although hastily fired and ill centered managed to capture a tolerably clear view (not to mention a safely viewed view) of the fleeting white goose. It was plain that the mystery bird was indeed mostly white, with some speckling on the inner wing, and possessed an orangish bill and feet. The view was clear enough to show that it was the same size as the regular Canadians around it and that it lacked black wing tips, and this was enough to prove it was definitely not a snow goose (Snow geese are significantly smaller than Canadians and they have black tipped wings). The question became what-the-heckish very quickly. I should have run the cat over.

Had it of been a snow goose, this probably would have ended things but now it became a personal mission to re-find the bird and get a better look. I was thinking along the lines of a pie-bald Canada Goose by this time – in other words this was snow regular goose (sorry, I had to say it). Like a prowler, I circled and re-circled the route for two days (off and on, mind you). The route took me past St. Mary’s Park on the north side of the river and all the way out to the Raisinville Bridge and back. At one point I noticed a lighter bird amongst a small gang of Canadians down by St. Mary’s Park. This one turned out to be a lone barnyard (gray) goose and was not nearly light enough to be my Mr. White (see below).

Work interfered and I wasn’t able to find my answer until a week later. Driving over the Raisinville Bridge while on a completely un-related mission, I spotted my white goose swimming with his band of brothers. Suddenly becoming overly excited I declared a loud “Ah-Hah!” and ran over three cats while turning around (not that this is necessarily related, but I believe it is illegal to turn around on a bridge isn’t it?). I parked my car, ran to the overlook and fired off some more shots while leaning un-comfortably over the rail. An old fellow named Clarence suddenly appeared and asked me if I was alright, but left after I told him “it’s a Wonderful Life”… bird. I don’t keep a life list, but it seemed like the thing to say.

The elusive fowl “captured”, I set about analyzing his details as revealed in digital clarity. Let me simply say that the bird was probably a pie-bald Canada Goose. Pie-bald is a common term for “leucistic” which refers to an individual lacking the proper pigment to look normal. Leucistic animals display large patches of white or have bleached-out features. Because they have dark eyes and other dark features, these critters are not considered albinos. Like albinos, on the other hand, their condition is genetically based and quite rare.

There are reasons why I don’t think it was a hybrid resulting from the illicit conjugation of a wild goose and the farmer’s daughter’s goose. This bird, as I stated before, was identical in proportion to the other wild Canada Geese. The white portion of the neck mirrors the black portion of the Canada Goose – ending at a clear line where it met the breast. There is even a hint of a buffy patch under the chin where the white patch would normally be. The hind end, which is pigmented, looks very much like a Canadian butt.  There is a possibility that there is some domestic blood mixed in, but I don’t think so.

There was one very odd thing on this bird. An unusual oblong growth on the underside of the beak radically changed its appearance. It is colored like the rest of the beak material so is probably a birth defect of some sort. I doubt that it affects the bird other than to make shaving difficult (if indeed it is a male – or perhaps an Hungarian grandmother). There is no doubt that this was snow…er, I mean …no regular goose.

I’ll leave you decide whether this bird was worth ignoring my Guardian angel.

February 17, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock’s House

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:16 pm

I was always under the impression that the great suspense movie director Alfred Hitchcock was dead (and English – not that the two are mutually exclusive!). So, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered his house just west of Monroe, Michigan of all places. I was going west on South Custer Road when something prompted me to look north and gawk through the side window. I slammed on my brakes and headed back east on South Custer (briefly facing south while turning around). The something in question was a house and yard covered by thousands of blackbirds. It was a scene straight out of “The Birds.”

There was no sign that anyone was around, so I couldn’t verify who actually lived in the place. If it wasn’t the Hitchcock residence then it might have been the Hedren house (as in “Tippi”). For a moment I wondered if perhaps the poor occupants, whoever they may have been, were trapped inside after witnessing the horrible pecking death of their pet poodle. There was a small pile of something in the front yard that could have been tiny dog bones. Fortunately, this turned out to be nothing more than a piece of wind-blown trash. Since no recent bird-related deaths appeared in the paper the following day, I can now relate this story to you in comfort.

The sight of a million blackbirds is not an unusual one during the cold season. The birds -Starlings to be exact – are famous for gathering into large feeding and roosting flocks. The sight of so many black feathered bodies taking over a house was certainly worthy of a gawk. They were soaking up the mid-morning sun while roosting on the steeply angled shingle roof. The roof itself was a dark gray color but it was rapidly taking on a white-speckled appearance due to the accumulation of Starling “stuff.” Other birds were gleaning seeds from the open grass in the lawn. Still others were randomly flying about in thick black flocks as if patrolling the perimeter for signs of helpless little yard poodles. It was an occupation.

I admit that the whole thing fascinated me more than usual because I had just been thinking about Starlings. I introduced the subject at a garden club meeting on the previous morning. They wanted to hear about alien species and I obliged them. I started out the program by stating that William Shakespeare was partly to blame. In the early 1890’s a group of home-sick European immigrants decided to import and release (in America) all the birds mentioned in the Bard’s plays. A bunch of Starlings were part of that effort. They were liberated into New York’s Central Park based on the following snippet from King Henry the 4th (Part 1).

He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Yes, because King Henry would not ransom Mortimer, Hotspur vowed to teach a Starling how to say the word “Mortimer” – and only the word Mortimer – and give it to the king in the hopes of driving him mad. This is why there are Starlings in the New World. They went from a few hundred individuals to well over 200 million today. I’d say that at least half of these birds were in that yard west of Monroe the other day.

Upon hearing the Shakespeare story, one of the members of the garden club excitedly raised her hand and asked “you mean Starlings can talk?”  I answered in the affirmative. “Yes, they can be taught simple words, but have trouble with Latin phrases and Japanese idioms.”  My sarcasm fell flatly on the ground as she continued to talk about one of her favorite books called Arnie, the Darling Starling. In this book, a pet Starling was taught all kinds of words (although no Japanese as far as I know) and occasionally drove the household crazy with repetitious phrases such as “pretty bird.” “I always thought that was made up!” the gal said.  She was so relieved and excited that I could do nothing but share in her joy.

Speed forward a day and you have my mega-Starling encounter and a flashback to that great Shakespearian/Hitchkockian drama about birds taking over the world. I returned to work last week and found a copy of Arnie the Darling Starling on my desk along with a very nice thank you letter from my garden club friend.

I can only imagine what would have been like if all of those Starlings gathered at the Hitchcock house had been screaming “Mortimer” and “Pretty bird.”  That, my friend, would be the stuff of horror movies.

February 9, 2012

Seeking White Trash

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:33 pm

This winter, a small winter thus far, has been one of those so-called “invasion years” in which large numbers of northern owls have descended into the lower 48. We trolls have experienced a virtual blizzard of Snowy Owls this season. They come down every year, but this has been a particularly big one by all accounts. The reason behind this influx is apparently based on the ups and downs of the lemming population in Moosejaw, but I suspect it also has something to do with exchange rates.  It’s hard to say exactly how many birds are involved because they do move around a lot.  So, perhaps my “blizzard” reference might be a bit overboard (not my exchange comment, however). The numbers are hard to ignore.  In extreme S.E. Michigan alone, there have been at least nine separate (individual) Snowy Owls spotted and close to 100 sightings over the entire state. Many more have been seen along the south Erie shore and at least one bird was caught on video trying to buy frozen mice at a Seven-eleven using a stolen Tim Horton’s gift card.

I’ve talked to dozens of folks who’ve seen these birds and a few who have photographed them in action. Since I’ve seen a number of Snowy Owls in the past, I felt no particular rush to try and spot a 2012 version myself. I certainly had no urge to capture my own images of these northern visitors because virtually all the shots I’ve seen have been of calendar quality (except for the blurry store video of the before-mentioned offending owl, of course). It’s not that I didn’t care, it was just that I… um, well… I … didn’t want to… call attention to the fact that I have a short lens. You really need one of those huge back-brace lens in order to get a close portrait of a Snowy Owl. I have one of those little lenses that go “whirr” and extend out only an inch or so and ….O.K., I’ll admit to having occasional bouts of lens envy.

Unfortunately, upon hearing about the location of one of these owls in a farm field west of Dundee and having a free morning this week, I was forced to put all reservations aside. I zipped up my little lens (into its carrying case) and headed out. There was a relatively rare Arctic visitor nearly at my doorstep, after-all, and I am a Naturalist.  Besides, the place was close enough so that I could always claim to be just “driving by” in case someone with a big lens showed up.

It is safe to say that 90% of all Snowy Owl sightings are actually white trash sightings. I have been duped countless times by the sight of a rolling Target bag in the middle of a snowless brown field. Many farmers delight in placing white buckets or white plastic things atop remote fence posts. I’m sure there is some practical reason for this practice, but I believe it is attached to some as-of-yet undetermined sinister motive. I have looked at thousands of pieces of white trash over the years in the hope that one or two would turn out to have eyes.

The bird that I was seeking had been spotted in the wide open fields just south of M-50 and just east of the little town of Britton (at the Monroe/Lenawee Co. line). I would have to put up with a selection of Lenawee white trash and farmer tricks before spotting the bird, but there was little risk in the endeavor. The owl had been hanging around for some time.

In short, let me say that the fields in that location were very expansive and very brown. Snowy Owls are white birds that generally perch on or very near the ground. Spotting a large white bird against a brown background should have been quite easy. Snow cover would certainly have changed everything, but the little-lens Gods were with me on this occasion.

After patrolling the area and all the crossroads for nearly a half hour I was beginning to doubt myself. Oh, there was plenty of white trash in the distance. Each resolved itself into either a Target bag or a Clorox bottle upon glassing with binoculars. At one point I was certain that I’d finally tracked down my quarry perched on a fence post. It was the right size and was angled to one side. This sighting turned out to be a white plastic herbicide bottle. Farmers are evil.

After diverting my attention for a few minutes to the mating flights of a pair of Horned Larks, did I give the effort one more chance to fail. I began my slow roll down the muddy road and spotted another Target bag way out (about a quarter mile) in a stubble field off to my west. I glassed the bag and saw it blink. It was the owl.

The bird was a mature male. Male Snowy Owls are nearly snow white (no pun intended) and have very little of the dark speckling that the females and immatures possess. There, like one of those sinless souls that I learned about in Catholic school, this nearly spotless white fellow looked about. He spotted me and my little lens, performed a few nervous head swivels, and then lifted into a low flapping flight that took him further from me and deeper into the center of the field. It was a thrill even if it was brief. It was like witnessing a piece of the un-tamed Northern Lights come to earth.

I did my best to get a shot of that bird – at least one that competed with the store video. My shots serve only as digital proof that the bird was there. In the end, no one else showed up during my encounter so they also serve as proof that I was the owner of the biggest lens on the Lenawee County line during that brief time.

February 3, 2012

Muskrat Talk – Part I

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:16 pm

I watched a lone pedal biker struggling against the wind and mud. Out on the Point Mouillee dikes you can see things from a mile or more away. The biker was far down the dike road from my position. Since he was headed in my direction, and I in his, I knew we would eventually meet. Typical of Mouillee, the winds were especially gusty, but they were atypically warm for this last day of January. Temperatures were around 55 degrees at mid-day. The two-track road was slowly melting into a mushy stew and made the going rough for both narrow-wheeled contrivances and hiking boots. Because the biker had a basket on the front of his two-wheeler and was wearing above-the-knee wader boots, there was a good chance that he was a trapper.

The figure paused to catch his breath when an empty water bottle flew out of his basket. He dismounted and bent down to retrieve it – the wind nearly pushing him over in the process. After a slow minute he again straddled the bike and made like he was ready to continue. I was close by that time and hurried my step in order to reach him before he started moving again. By the time I opened my mouth to greet him I noticed a hatchet in the basket along with a pair of heavy gloves. Only trappers and Lizzie-Borden-types carry such implements about. I blurted out a point blank question in order to start up a conversation. “Are you a trapper?” I yelled over the roar of the wind.

“Yes, I sure am,” the gentleman replied while remaining straddled on his bike. He was basically bundled up to his eyeballs but I could see that he was no youngster – or even a middle ager for that matter. I’d say he was in his seventies and based on the size of his enormous plastic-rimmed glasses it looked like he hadn’t gotten a new pair since the seventies. He looked like Harry Carey (of baseball announcer fame). His windbreaker sported a Ford steel-making patch of some sort. His name was Loran, as I was to find out later. “I’m getting too old for this,” he then puffed and shook his head. Ironically, his name was Loran Young.

“Had much luck this season?” I asked. “No, not much,” Loran answered, “but I started late – I always do.” Given the warm nature of this winter his response didn’t surprise me (the trapping season started in early December). Muskrat trappers, at least those of the Mouillee kind, depend on good solid ice to reach their quarry. “I’ve gotten probably about twenty five ‘rats so far. He motioned to the small green sack sitting in his basket and continued, “I got two today.”

Further inquiry on my part revealed that even though he may have started late in this particular season he’d been trapping for many seasons. “I gave it up back a while when they stopped letting us drive our trucks out onto the dikes. We were tearing up the place. I see why they stopped it. But I got to looking at the fur auction prices and saw the prices. I decided to give it a go again.”

“What’s a prime ‘rat going for these days?” I asked.

“They’re getting $8-$12.”

“Wow,” was my immediate, if un-inspired, response. Four years ago they were getting up to $10 or more for the large perfect muskrats. That unusually high price prompted a flood of trappers out onto the Mouillee marshes. Trucks were allowed out on the dikes then, so even inexperienced trappers were setting out to reap the hairy gold.

The present vehicle ban necessitates that all trappers carry their goods to and from the pelt fields via non-motorized means. Bikes, hand carts, and back packs are required tools for transporting trap stakes, bait bags, metal Victor traps, and dead muskrats over the long distance. It makes for hard work and these restrictions have separated the wanna-be’s from the die-hards.  I can’t say for sure, but I’ll bet this restriction, plus the crummy seasonal conditions, have kept the newbies out this time around.

The end of January would be the normal end of the muskrat season, but Loran informed me that “they” (assuming the game area folks) extended the season for one more month. If things stay the way they are, however, it is un-likely that the trappers will get much more work done. “I’m not sure that the ice will come back yet this year,” Loran remarked. He went on to infer that he’d keep it up for as long as he could.

I asked if I could take his photo and he graciously agreed. After my first take, he said “wait a minute” and rummaged into his green sack and held up one of the ‘rats for a trophy shot.  This is somewhat of a trapper’s tradition. I can’t tell you how many black & white, or faded color prints, I’ve seen that portray a young trapper with their first catch – a smiling little boy standing next to a shed holding up a little muskrat. I’m sure Loran has one or two in his family photo album.  It is a tradition that carries through life as long as there is someone to point and shoot a camera.

“That’s a nice one,” I commented as I focused for my second shot. This was a large ‘rat – fat and glossy. “Yes, but you know,” Loran said, as if apologizing for the smaller ‘rat he left in the bag, “a lot of ‘em aren’t this big. It’s all that grass out there. They eat the stuff but don’t get much out of it.” By that he was referring to the vast spreads of Phragmites (reed) grass in the marsh. I approached to examine his catch and we both agreed that muskrats need cattails in order to thrive. The Game Area has been waging war against the Phrag (as it is un-affectionately called) because it is equally bad for ducks and muskrats.

There were a bunch of square wire frame traps in the bag along with the other ‘rat. These traps, called Conibears, are kill traps used primarily for working bank dens and runways. I figured these critters were taken with “Coney Bears” (an odd-sounding phrase unless you know what one is!) and said so aloud. “Oh no, no,” Loran retorted, “these were taken on boards.”

Board trapping is a method relying on ice. A hole is chopped through the ice and a narrow board is shoved down into the mud at the marsh bottom. The top sticks out and leans against the edge of the hole. A carrot (a very large carrot) is skewered onto a nail just below the waterline and an open-jawed Victor No. 1 trap is set just below that.  Apparently there was enough ice remaining to employ this time-tested Mouillee method in spite of the flaccid winter. “I had a bunch of these sets out earlier, “he lamented, “but after a while I couldn’t reach them anymore. I had to pull them out.” I expect he’ll be switching over to the “Coney Bears” soon.

Knowing that he was anxious to get back home where he could skin out his catch and frame it for drying, I bid Loran a good day and good luck. He waved, re-mounted his seat and took off at a wobbly pace. Fortunately, he only had a half mile to go before reaching his parked truck just outside the gate. Hopefully he only has a month to go before receiving his payback via a check from one of the local fur auctions.

The check will be small. He might make a high dollar on a few choice specimens but the incentive to return to the marsh boils down to “because it is still here and because I still can.”

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