Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 30, 2012

Dance of the Blacknose Dace

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:44 am

There is crisp flowing stream that runs through a moist wood near the south end of Dollar Lake. I don’t know what it  is called, but that doesn’t really matter. It is not a babbling brook because it courses over a sandy, rather than a stony, bed. It is swift and silent, cold, and delightfully clear.  In the springtime the deeper pools are about 3 ft. deep and the riffles maintain about 1 foot in depth.  It slips through a culvert under a concrete bridge at Indian Lake Road and the forced straightening seems to increase the already vigilant flow at that point. This is where the Daces Dance.

Although the birds and the bees get most of the attention, the fishes also “do it” in the Springtime.  Blacknose Dace, small minnow-sized fish that only reside in small streams, do their “thing” beginning in April.  This spawning urge does not start according to the calendar but is triggered by water temperatures between 16 – 22 degrees Celsius (a point reached sometime between April and July depending on where you are).  You could say these are the romantic “Dace of Wine and Roses” but that would only be an opportunity for a cheap flimsy pun (opportunity taken, as you can see).

Before we get into the “thing” and spiral into more punnery, perhaps it would be good to get a little more familiar with the fish itself. It is a safe bet that most of you haven’t seen one.  I had not seen a live one until I spotted the creatures in this nameless creek.  Admittedly, It took some homework to pin down the species in this case. There are many types of Dace and they all look very much alike. Blacknose Dace range from 2-4 inches in length and are distinguished by a dark lateral stripe which runs from tail to snout tip (thus the name). A lighter line lays over this dark one and the back is speckled.  The snout actually overhangs the mouth and the mouth faces downward – fit for picking up bottom invertebrates.

From my perch above these fish, my view – and the one I am providing you – was basically an aerial perspective. In the spawning season, the dark side line often becomes reddish brown. Unfortunately, this feature doesn’t show up well from on high.

Blacknose Daces spend most of their year in the deeper pools(see here another school upstream) and the gentler portions of the stream but gravitate to the shallow riffles for spawning.  The actual act of “doing it” is very brief. You can see these little guys in action in this short video clip (here) The female fish, bulging with eggs, is the darker individual. The male appears paler and has a scar on his back (and possibly a mole on his right buttock).  He sidles up to the female, arches his back slightly over hers, and the two fish wiggle rapidly. A cloud of sediment is stirred up by the action and washes away in the swift current. It is over very quickly.

During this brief time of togetherness the female releases some eggs and the male attempts to fertilize them as they are laid. The eggs settle into the gravelly sand and develop on their own. Females can lay up to 9,000 eggs. Over the course of 20 minutes I witnessed this activity take place about a dozen times between these two fish. In some sub-species of Blacknose Dace the males defend territories and will mate with any female that enters it. This spot below the bridge apparently belonged to “scar back” because he was the only male I saw (doing the male thing).

Blacknose Dace are a symbol of clean water and their spawning is an example of good clean fun!

April 24, 2012

Does This Nest Make Me Look Fat?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:18 pm

You might recall my previous postings about the Osprey pair that built a magnificent nest near Estral Beach last year. The couple led a successful domestic life for the season and then headed to South America for the winter. This is the way of Osprey life.

There is no locking up of the “old place” when leaving and no certainty that it will still be standing upon their return.  In fact, there is no certainty that it will be their place upon their return – even if it remains intact. Great horned Owls are infamous for taking over large nests since they do not build their own structures. They start their nesting in mid-winter and therefore gain squatting rights over what are essentially abandoned nests. There are frequent accounts of these great Owls horning in on existing Osprey nests. This occupation is not contested by the returning Ospreys who immediately seek alternate nest sites.  This is also part of Osprey life.

This season our dedicated Estral Beach Ospreys were unceremoniously booted from their original nest by honkers as opposed to hooters. As unlikely as it may seem, a pair of Canada Geese have claimed the lofty pad and they are now “in a family way.” I suppose it is naturally legal for geese to do what owls do, but there must be some sort of code violation involved.  The sight of a lone female goose sitting atop a giant tree nest is certainly an odd fit. She can be seen peering nervously over the edge at anyone who pauses beneath the nest.  I would say hers is the look is of “guilt” but everyone knows that geese do not have any such emotion (they could not live with themselves if they did)

This is not a unique situation. There are plenty of examples where geese have taken over Osprey nests. This is the first time I’ve ever seen such a thing, however, and thus the reason why I am bringing it to your attention.

At issue in this case was the fate of the now homeless ospreys. The dauntless pair returned to find a fertilizer dispenser in possession of their nest and did what they are hard-wired to do – they immediately sought another location. Never mind that they are physically capable of tearing the goose apart and tossing the bloody shreds to the wind. That is not the Osprey way.

Unfortunately, the birds innocently started to build their new nest atop a transformer on a nearby pole and this created a potential problem with the DTE energy people.  The goose was looking even guiltier as it appeared that the ospreys would have to be evicted yet again. People finally stepped into the picture but the final answer did not involve a shotgun (unfortunately, I might add).

One of the humans involved was USFWS Biologist Greg Norwood (the nest site is adjacent to a unit of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge). Greg filled me in on what happened next. “The whole thing started on the Monday the 16th” he said “when the Ospreys built their new nest on the transformers.” He, along with the folks from DTE, “had to drop everything” and come up with a solution.  What these folks did was simply amazing.

DTE’s Jason Cousineau came up with a ready-made Osprey nest platform and the power company’s crew stuck a Yellow Pine telephone pole into the ground on the refuge land adjacent to the goosified nest.  The platform was secured into place and the whole thing was ready to go by Friday the 20th.  The Ospreys took to this structure as if it was made just for them (which it was, but that is beside the point). By the time I drove up to the scene the birds were diligently working on their new nest and looked very much at home. One can only hope the rest of the season goes smoothly for them.

As for the goose, who watched the whole affair from “her” nest, I can only hope that she remains ignorant of guilty feelings (such a thing would tear up a nobler beast).  I would like to be there when her fat little goslings have to leap from the nest and plunge 50 feet to the ground. Wood Duck ducklings do this all the time, but geese are not Wood Ducklings. We will see if goslings bounce.

April 18, 2012

Dork Turkeys on the Trot

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:11 pm

Yeah, I know. Seeing Wild Turkeys is nothing special these days. It is even more  “un-specialer”when you are talking about Northern Michigan. NOT seeing wild turkeys is probably a more reportable subject. Because of this I have long resisted the temptation to feature turkeys on my blog expect to focus on the rare occasion when I am able to capture them doing something different.  I’ve yet to see any doing the Tango on a barn roof or playing rugby.  Strutting turkeys are spectacular, so I am always on the look-out for this behavior. I attempted to show you some courting turkeys last year in this blog, but my shots were taken from a quarter mile away. They were admittedly of Loch Ness Monster quality.

The peak of the gobbling season – when the males puff up, fan out their feathers, and gobble incessantly for the benefit of the gals – can begin as early as February and runs through May. The birds commence their courtship while they are still concentrated into their wintering areas. Late April- early May is the peak time.

Because this is the prime courting time, my eye has been peeled for turkey gangs. I came upon some strutting spring Gobblers near West Branch the other day and, because I actually was able to view these dandies at a fairly close distance, and (this is a big AND) because the day was clear and the angle of the morning sun was just right, I was able to both see them and photograph them.  So (he continues un-necessarily) I bring them to you. These fowl delivered a slight twist on the usual story, however.

There were at two Toms performing for the benefit of a half dozen hens in this cluster. There was a bit of gobbling going on, but the dance was fairly quiet. The two males were paralleling each other as they strutted and fanned – they were never more than a few feet apart. In fact it was hard to get a picture of one without getting the other in the viewfinder.Wing tips dragging on the ground and tails fully fanned, the two stepped forward with measured military precision. Their heads were held back to display their bright blue and red fleshy wattles and “snoods” (the floppy projection that drapes over the beak). As impressed as I personally was with the show, there was something amateurish about the dancing Toms and the hens quickly became uninterested. They started to file away toward the brush and left the guys to follow meekly behind (see below).

I noticed several things about these gents. Mature Toms normally have prominent beards – those bristly tufts that project from the mid-line of the chest.  The display posture (chest out) is meant to highlight this feature. These two birds had very short beards which barely made it out past the layer of chest feathers. They also had very short spurs on their legs. Mature birds have spurs in excess of 1 inch while these spurs barely qualified as nubs. In short, we were dealing with a pair of dorks here.

The un-equal tail feathers were probably the most obvious dork feature. You’ll note in the pictures and movie (here) that the central tail feathers were much longer than the rest. The outer feathers were ragged and worn looking. This feature became apparent when the fans were fully displayed. Young turkeys don’t fully molt their tail feathers until they have reached their 2nd autumn.  The molting process proceeds from the inside out which means that the new central feathers come in first and the full complement of tail feathers are not replaced until late in their sophomore year.  In other words, an unequal tail indicates a bird in it’s first Spring. These fellows were barely out of the Freshman class.

The sight of a puffed out Wild Turkey is a spectacular thing even if if all the feathers and bling aren’t all in place. These guys looked like Thanksgiving candles and the sight was satisfying enough. Probably the only reason I was able to approach them so closely was because they were inexperienced. Thanks for the show, Boys, and good luck with the chicks and the frustrated hormones.

April 13, 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen…the Golden Dung Fly

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:53 am

My first introduction to the Golden Dung Fly was out on the windy Pointe Mouillee dikes.  Perhaps it goes without saying, but I was not seeking them (one can’t seek what one is ignorant of, one can only discover). I wandered slightly off the path to look at a dancing cloud of midges (something I was not ignorant of, but still not seeking). I crouched down and “discovered” that I was hovering over the dried carcass of a muskrat. The critter was little more than a flattened piece of rawhide with some feet and a tail sticking out. It didn’t smell due to the persistent easterly breeze and the fact that I was east of the dead ‘rat.

The skin was populated by a half-dozen large flies and they immediately grabbed my attention.  To heck with the dancing midges, I thought, these carcass flies were much more engaging. They were big, bold, and covered with a bright golden fleece. Dare I say it, but they were almost pretty (I’d say “cute” but that would probably trouble many of you beyond reason and cause you to abandon this post).  These yellow fellows were very active as well.

I spent a grand total of ten minutes observing these flies. Their activity consisted of jumping at, and over, each other like kids playing hopscotch. O.K., I realize that comparing children to carcass flies may seem a bit insensitive, but I suspect the flies probably wouldn’t take too much exception to that comparison. Never once did they feed on the carcass or enter into its oily crevasses – as small children would invariably do. The reason for this became obvious after I later researched them. In spite of their name, Golden Dung Flies don’t really eat dead stuff or even dung, for that matter. Dung flies feed on other flies that do eat dung and dead stuff!  Ladies and gentlemen allow me to introduce you to the Golden Dung Fly.

Now don’t get me wrong, now, these flies are all about dung and smelly things and every phase of their life revolves around it.  Their scientific name, Scathophaga stercoraria, pretty well sums this up. It means, through a combination of Latin and Greek words for dung, “poop loving poop beast.” It is like naming your child Poopy Crap McDung. It is recorded that these guys prefer the dung of horses and cows (or “pats” as they are euphemistically called). The adults feed on other flies visiting the pats, although they have also been known to ingest pollen from time to time.

One of the scientifically significant things about Golden Dung flies is that they have long been studied for their mating practices. The males and females gather at the smelly places, eat, and then mate with each other.  There is usually quite a bit of aggressive competition between males for mating rights. The study part involves a mechanism within the female which allows her to store the male sperm and selectively control the fertilization process. Sexy, eh?

Regardless of where she was impregnated, the female then lays her eggs in a choice fresh pile of pat. The larvae emerge and burrow through the waste seeking other insect larvae to feed upon. So, there you have it, even the kids don’t eat the waste- they just play in it. After 21 days, they pupate and later emerge as the golden hairy flies shown in these pictures.

I do believe that enough has been said regarding the Golden Dung Fly without beating a dead horse – or a dead muskrat. When next you encounter a putrid pat or carcass rare, seek the golden-fleeced fly and embrace it (mentally that is).

April 7, 2012

Smoke on the Water

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:50 pm

I was never of fan of 70’s rock – either during the 70’s or now – but I could not resist borrowing a Deep Purple line for this blog title. It fit so well and like, man, it is a groovy thing when art meets nature. Smoky yellow clouds of tree pollen are landing on the still marsh waters and creating wonderful swirled patterns on the surface. There is smoke on the water and in the air.

This is a good time of year to think about tree pollen because it is everywhere. Not all of it is bad for you but a good part of it (that is, the part that isn’t landing on the water) is travelling into your nostrils and travelling deep into your head.  It originates from numerous forms of tiny tree flowers, but most of the smoky water coating pollen comes from two wetland loving trees – Black Alder and Cottonwood.

Both of these trees produce their flowers on catkins. They are prompted by the warmth of spring to open up,  expose their flowers, and shed their pollen.  It is a form of “letting one’s hair down” I suppose. Only the male flowers produce pollen, so if you are in a sneezy mood you need to place blame on the masculine side of the picture.

It is easy to tell the boy from the girl flowers on a Cottonwood tree because the boys wear red dangling ear-rings (above) and the females wear green ones that eventually turn to fluff. This is a horribly simplified view of things, but as a horribly simple person I find no problem with a statement like that. Cottonwood trees are either male or female (“He said/She said” plants or “diecious” if you are a stickler for term accuracy). The male trees are now holding out their reddish catkins for the world to see. They are shedding cascades of tiny pollen grains into the air.

Cottonwood pollen grains are perfectly round and have a crackled surface. They look like Jovian moons when viewed under high magnification. On the water surface they look like yellow smoke, but you already know that.

The larger portion of that yellow water smoke, however, is contributed by the Black Alder trees.  Immigrants to our neck of the woods, these trees are among the first pollen shedders in our area. Both the male and female flowers are found on the same tree (“He-she trees” or “monecious” if you are a stickler for term accuracy). The dangling pollen-shedding catkins (see below) are male while the delicate feminine flowers are encased within cone-like structures.

Alders are world class pollen shedders because they produce so many flowers. In one study, it was determined that an average Black Alder produced some 7,300 catkins per tree. Each catkin had an average of 580 flowers in it.  That makes for around a gazillion flowers per tree (rounded off, of course). Each catkin produces over 19,500,000 pollen grains. The catkins are so pollen-laden that even after they fall from the tree they still leave worm-like pollen marks on the ground (see below).

Alder pollen grains are slightly smaller than Cottonwood grains buy a few micrometers (a micrometer is 1×10−6 of a meter or “super eensy-weensy” if you are still insisting on technical talk).  These grains look like stuffed Ravioli pasta with dimples at each corner (most have four dimples, while others have five or six). Perhaps the most telling of Alder facts is the estimated pollen poundage per tree. Based on that same afore-mentioned study each tree can produce an average of 884 grams of pollen per season. That’s nearly two pounds of pollen dumped into the wind per tree per season.

Although I couldn’t track down the pollen figures as they relate to the Cottonwood, you can safely imagine that we are also talking in terms of poundage per tree. That means lots of smoke on the water and lots of itchy eyes, wheezing, and dripping humans. For allergy sufferers this excess love dust is like “fire in the sky.”

NOTE: I don’t show you any images of pollen grains, but can refer you to the sculpture work of Jo Golesworthy to get an idea of what they look like. This artist produces giant pollen sculptures that any hay fever sufferer would love to have in their garden.

April 1, 2012

Ladybug, Ladybug How Many Spots Have Thee?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:20 pm

 

These warm spring days have lured out a host of hibernating people and insects. Commas, Question Marks, and Mourning Cloak butterflies have been flitting about since early March, and queen Paper Wasps have joined in the seasonal pageant – primed to set up their monarchies.  Lots of large hairy flies have crawled out from under “bark and stone” seeking putrid refreshment. Large hairy men, sporting tank tops, have also been spotted mowing their lawns already. Ah, spring.

Ladybugs – or Ladybird Beetles if you please – are among the creatures venturing forth as adults. They hibernate in crevices, under leaf litter, or in house attics and become active at the first warmth of spring.  Most members of this beetle clan are orange with multiple black spots and they are easily identified as ladybugs by large hairy men and small hairless children alike.  The number of spots can be baffling, however. They can range in number from none to 20 or so. Asian Ladybugs are especially varied and no two look exactly alike.  The morbidly named Twice-stabbed Ladybug takes this spot-madness even further. By being jet black with two red spots, they reverse the usual color combination. At least they are consistently two-spotted.

 The name of this particular Ladybug is appropriate. The scientific name has the term “stigma” as the species name. This literally means “spot or mark,” but the word is more often associated with wounds (the “stigmata” of Christ, for instance).  

 Speaking of Twice-stabbed Beetles, I’ve noticed something.  At present, there is hardly a Red Maple tree that doesn’t have at least a few of these black shiny critters crawling about on the sunny side of the trunk. I don’t believe this is because I am looking only at Red maple trees, but because these things are truly clustering there. There is a tight association of Twice-Stabbed Beetles with Red Maples. I have a guess as to why that is so. Ladybugs are predators, so it’s not about feeding on the tree buds or leaves, but instead it is about feeding on the other tree pests. Cottony Maple Scales, tiny relatives of the aphid, are known to infest Red Maples and Ladybugs – especially Crucified ones- are well known scale eaters. So, they are seeking Cotton Candy there upon the Red Maple trees and saving the world for you and me.

 You’ll note the rhyme in the previous sentence. That just came off of my fingers as they flew across the keys. Ladybugs will do that to a person. Perhaps you’ve heard “Ladybug, ladybug fly away home.  Your house is on fire and your children will burn (except little Nan who sits in a pan weaving gold thread as fast as she can”). As usual, ladybug verse is both odd and arbitrary. There are more, but since I am talking about a two-spotted critter here it would be best to concentrate strictly on spot legends (see spot, see spot run, run large hairy man run).

 Ladybug spots have long been the subject of a whole host of stupid legends. For instance, if a woman sits on one accidently, the number of spots on the squashed bug will indicate the number of children she will bear.  There is nothing about age in this particular legend, so we wonder if it is possible for a 97 year old to have twins? Another tale relates the falsehood that if a ladybug falls onto a farmer’s shoulder, the number of spots on that individual will predict the success of the harvest. If the critter has less than 7 spots then the harvest will be good. If more than seven spots then death, destruction, and famine will follow. I would advise all you farmers out there to stand under a Red Maple Tree.

 In truth, those red spots on the stark black background of the Twice-stabbed Ladybug serve as a warning to all potential predators that the bearer is nasty tasting.  In other words “heed this warning and save yourself the trouble of eating me. I will make you sick.” This negative advertising insures that a wandering “bug” can stay alive along as it avoids feminine hind ends, third stabbings, and large hairy men in tank tops.

 

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