Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 26, 2012

The Swallows of Trailer 175

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:23 pm

Many swallows are named after their preferred nesting sites. Barn Swallows, for instance often chose the overhanging eaves and beams offered by barns and Bank Swallows operate out of holes tunneled into sandy banks. These names are only suggestions, however, and none of these birds are required to follow their restrictions.  Cliff Swallows, in the absence of natural precipices will build their mud pottery structures on the stone-like substructure of bridges and overpasses. Barn Swallows are equally open to the support beams on docks. Bank Swallows will not switch to 5/3rd Banks. Swallows refuse to pay interest on rental property.

Tree Swallows, to continue on this theme, are closely associated with tree cavities. These green and white birds frequently use old woodpecker holes and are often the first tenants to move into a newly vacated Downy Woodpecker home. They will readily take to man-made “tree” cavities as well. Bluebird houses really should be referred to as Tree Swallow houses- given the number of these birds that take up residence in them.

Although wood cavities – either man-made or woodpecker made – are the preferred housing material there are further exceptions. At least one local pair of Tree Swallows have gone trailer park. These birds have opted for the metallic confines of a parked boat trailer for their nest hole.

When I saw a swallow dive into the open end of a boat trailer support last week I thought the bird might be doing some creative exploring. They will often check out a number of false leads. (Just the other day I watched another pair scoping out the exhaust pipe on a car. The female was peering into the pipe as the male sat on the ground nervously looking about). When the trailer swallow flew off I took the opportunity to look into the depth. Sure enough, there was a wad of nesting material about two feet down at the point where a cross beam intersects the angled slope of the upright (see above). It was a nest site.

This particular bird posed a bit of a problem at first. Unlike the typical iridescent green/blue of the species, it was brownish and appeared to have a dusky stripe across her chest in the manner of a bank swallow (see above). Even terribly misguided Bank Swallows don’t nest in man-made structures, so this seemed unusual on two levels. The problem was quickly solved when a perfectly normal looking male Tree Swallow showed up and perched outside the trailer nest. Even terribly misguided Tree Swallows don’t take up with Bank Swallows, so the brown female was, in fact, a first year female Tree Swalllow.

Perhaps it was the inexperience of the female that led here to chose such an unpromising location. The open end of the trailer tube was angled up to the weather and nothing seemed conducive to success.  I returned later in the week, expecting the place to have been wisely abandoned, only to discover that the nest was now fully lined with feathers and the female was incubating eggs. They were giving site No. 175 a chance.

Tree Swallows – actually all swallows as far as I know -use feathers to line their nest. They do not use their own, but seek out large light-colored duck, chicken, or heron feathers (whatever the nearest source might be). The Barn Swallows building their nests under the nearby docks do the same thing and I captured on of these fellows in the act (see here). The pale brown female Trailer Swallow sat patiently as I observed her through the top of the tube. She flew off on her own after I backed away and this allowed another peek at her clutch of fragile white eggs (see below). Both parents dive bombed me during this attempt so I backed off and left them to their own.

I just checked Trailer 179 yesterday and the birds are still at it. She was so deeply surround by feathers that I failed to see her nestled within their folds. When she left I was unable to see whether the eggs had hatched (it takes around 14 days) and chose not to stick a probe down the tube and disturb things anymore than I already had.  One large heron feather was arched over the spot.

Fortunately the boat trailer will be parked in its present position for some time (the owner has his boat in the marina for the summer).  The nest is in no danger of becoming a mobile unit. We can safely watch the progress of these Trailer Swallows through to the end.


May 19, 2012

Two Eyes, and One Finger, on a Click Beetle

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:41 pm

It’s not like I captured an Eyed Click Beetle just for the sake of showing it off to school children. The creature came to me. It was under my camera bag in the passenger side seat of the car. When I lifted the bag and saw a pair of pseudo eyes starring up at me from the seat, I assumed it was a gift from God. One does not take God-gifts lightly, so I took the creature and started to give it the naturalist’s once over (which means “looking, lensing, and liberating” – the three “L’s” that imply close observation, photography or hand lens work, and eventual release.)

I decided to waylay the last “L” step (muttering “what the “L”) when I realized that this thing would be a great show ‘n’ tell item for the multiple “Going Buggy” Kindergarten programs that were on my docket for the upcoming week. It was large and would perform on cue. That decision turned out to be 2/3rds of a good one, but I believe my next action might have strained my relation with God a bit. I looked at the car seat, where the camera bag had been, to see if there was a stack of hundred dollar bills that I might have overlooked. It was worth a try, but in retrospect I believe Moses got into trouble when he struck that rock a second time.

The Eyed Click Beetle is the largest member of the click tribe in the region. It is a large, nearly tropical sized, beetle which spends most of it’s time in the vicinity of rotten wood. All other click beetles are only around a ½ inch or so in length while this one is closer to an 1 1/2 long. The two large dark eye spots on the thorax are the features responsible for the name. The rest of the creature blends into its chosen background fairly well, but you can imagine how those “eyes” would take an attacking bird aback upon initial contact. The real eyes are rather small and located in the usual spot near the base of the antennas.

Not one to rely solely upon trickery, however, this beetle will take action in order to thwart any attacker.  It will instinctively draw in all appendages and begin to “click.” The action not only produces a loud snapping sound (frightening enough to a bird brain) but it often propels the beetle into the air like a tiddly-wink. Because the insect is encased in a hard shiny exoskeleton, those snapping moves also make it difficult to hold onto. You can watch this on the video here.

The clicking mechanism consists of a stout projection that extends from the bottom of the thorax onto a grooved shelf located between the second set of legs. When the beetle arches back, the end of the projection is forcibly pulled out of the groove and snaps down. About the only way I can explain it would be to have you put the tips of your middle finger and thumb together, stand on a stool, and pull the edge of your middle fingernail over that of your thumbnail. The resulting click will not only sound just like that made by the Eyed click Beetle but it will also give you an impression of how it feels. The stool standing part? Well, that is actually un-necessary but it sure made you look silly didn’t it!

As I mentioned earlier, I did bring this fantastic insect for my “Going Buggy” presentations. I had to do three in a row and the beetle performed admirably for the first two. I know from the looks in the eyes of the Kindergarteners before me that they were delighted (a live insect is so much more entertaining than one with a pin through its back). They could hear the click and watch it at the same time. I was smugly convinced that these little ones were learning a valuable lesson and that I – the educator – was doing my job to show them how accessible and interesting nature can be.

The third presentation started out as well as the first two but it appeared that the beetle was getting wise to my intentions. It locked into a planking position and slid about on the hard plastic bottom of the container as I tried to pick it up. In the process I managed to position one of my pointer fingers over the creature’s head and it bit me.

Now, mind you, this is a fairly large and powerful insect, so when that beetle clamped down and grabbed a piece of my skin it did so in a vice-grip manner. All this happened with my back to the crowd. I figured that I could pull it off and resume things normally.  The bite didn’t exactly hurt, but my attempts to pull the creature off were futile. I do believe that a piece of my fingertip would have been ripped off in the process. So, seeing that there was no recourse, I simply turned around and presented the beetle to the kids as it hung down from my finger.

Their reaction wasn’t quite what I expected as they recoiled at the thought that this thing was biting me. I assured them that it didn’t hurt, but still they backed away as I walked closer. The end came when the beetle finally released its grip and fell into the palm of my other hand. A rich red bead of blood appeared at the bite site before I could cover it up.  The children screamed and a few stood up and prepared to dash for the comfort of their parents in the back of the room. I calmed them down, told them it didn’t hurt, and continued with the “clicking” part of the show. But, it was too late. Instead of fascination, they all looked at the creature in horror – it not only ate humans but made a scary sound as well.

Unfortunately, I ended up releasing 30 small children from that classroom who will probably be scarred for life.  They will end up being exterminators. I liberated the beetle without malice and returned it to God’s tender care. I had paid for looking twice under that camera case.

May 14, 2012

Otter Surprise

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:26 pm

I now know that I have at least four aquatic mammals in Dollar Lake. The muskrats are, by far, the most visible but there is ample beaver evidence at the south end of the lake to prove the existence of these large rodents. An occasional mink track reminds me of their presence as well. Up until this year, I was fairly certain that these three mammals made up the entire hairy contingent in “my” lake. This spring, however, a forth critter made itself known. Imagine my surprise when I spotted an otter gamboling about the waters off the end of the dock. I was otterly surprised.

River otters are large animals, so it is hard to understand how one had been present in Dollar Lake for the last three years without being spotted. An average male weighs around 25 pounds (a female comes in at around 15 pounds) and they range from 3-4 feet in length.  Because they tend to be nocturnal in habit, I guess it is very possible for a daytime human to overlook them.  In spite of the above reasons, I’m guessing that this individual was a newly arrived visitor (a wandering otter known as an ottermobile).  I’ve now spotted it over the course of the last several visits – usually towards late afternoon/early evening.

Otters are primarily fish eaters, so it is not a surprise that when I see him he is fishing. They do eat crayfish and prey upon an occasional muskrat or two, but fish are the mainstay diet for these hefty members of the weasel family. Dollar Lake is stocked with an abundant supply of small bullheads, perch, bluegill, and sunfish and in that regard it is an otter paradise.

When on the hunt, the first evidence of activity appeared as a bubble trail issuing to the surface. The trail twisted and turned with amazing velocity as the otter darted back and forth under the water in active pursuit of its prey.  The frothy evidence would often disappear and then suddenly re-appear, within the blink of an eye, at a point several yards away. According to the literature, these creatures can swim 7 mph and can stay submerged for up to 8 minutes.  They are as agile as the fish they are chasing.

I never saw the Dollar Lake Otter submerge for more than a minute at a time before the rounded head bobbed to the surface. More often than not he was chewing away on the last remnants of a finny meal and displaying a formidable set of teeth.

I never knew exactly where the thing would come to the surface and therefore had a very difficult time trying to get a decent picture of it. It would only remain exposed for a few seconds before diving again. My sole still photo for the first half of the month was a single shot of an otter butt slipping beneath the surface. The thick muscular tail was obvious in the shot, but little else. In this particular case, the beast slipped beneath the surface and didn’t re-appear until it was half-way across the lake and well beyond my camera range.

Fortunately, the swimmer presented itself later in the month for a series of twilight videos (see here).

Play is the key component of otter life. They are well known for their Disney-like antics and my otter displayed a bit of this playfulness as I was filming it.  At the end of a feeding sequence, it came up within a bed of lily pads. He purposely wrapped himself up in the stems and performed a few belly rolls before breaking free. The twilight hunt had been successful and the creature was apparently playing out some extra energy before taking a break.

This video evidence provided me the opportunity to at least share my otter amazement using something other than words and a single butt shot.

May 7, 2012

Why My Lawn Looks Like a Hayfield

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:16 pm

It’s all very simple you know. My lawn looks like a rolling prairie because of Red Squirrels. That’s the raw truth, so please don’t report me to the eyesore police. I am now “taking care” of the issue.

It all began a few weeks ago when I finally decided to enter the shed and attempt my annual re-starting of the riding mower. My place is wet and low, so waiting until mid-April is not unusual around here. Any attempt previous to that time would result in a new lawn ornament shaped like a riding mower – sunk deep and fast in the middle of the yard.  I call this my annual re-starting attempt because there is always an issue of some sort that prevents a successful first mow. It has been a dead battery, a horribly flat tire, wiring issues, and a bad belt in the past. Once a woodchuck dug a den hole under it and proceeded to bury the entire front end of the mower under a mound of dirt.

This year I sat on the thing, turned the key and nothing happened.  I was not surprised in the slightest, but did start to mentally run through the potential issue list (a thought process made clearer through the use of helper words such as “dang-it” and “##!!@ -it”. The problem list became very short (and the helper word list became long) upon throwing open the hood. I could not see most of my engine because it was completely packed with grasses, leaves, and chewed walnuts.  My John Deere had become a Home Sweet Squirrel Home.

I started to pull away some of the material and discovered two hairless baby red squirrels at the center right next to the battery cable. I figured them to be perhaps 10 days old – well before their eye-opening stage at 27-28 days and after the onset of reddish back fur after the first week of life. The feet and long ratty tail look over-sized at this stage. They were not cute in any sense of the word. The portion of battery cable lying next to them was completely stripped of its insulation right down to the shiny copper wire. That also was not cute.

Because I am a naturalist first and a good homeowner second, I decided to give the mother Red Squirrel a chance to move her kids before I ripped them from limb to limb. Red Squirrels will often move their young if necessary. They will carry them by the back of the neck in the manner of a dog. I left the hood up, set up my trail cam at a point opposite the nest, and closed the shed door for a few hours. Upon my return, the nest had been re-opened and the little ones were gone.

I have a picture of my pale white freckled hand touching the nest at about noon when I set, and tested, the camera. According to the photo evidence the adult squirrel made her first appearance at the nest almost an hour later. She is pictured reaching down into the nest to grab one of the babies (see below) at 12:52 pm. She had accomplished her motherly deed within a few seconds. It takes the camera around 20 seconds to “revive” and I suspect she had already grabbed the first one by the time this shot was taken. At exactly 12:57 pm she is again captured flying past the lens (see second photo below) but the nest was already empty by then. My pale freckly hand makes another appearance at 2:19 pm as I check the nest for occupants.

I do not know where she moved them and frankly don’t care. I immediately set about pulling out a bushel basket of nest material and about 6,000 chewed walnuts. The battery cable was fried, so I removed it and bought a replacement. The battery turned out to be dead so I took it down and had it re-charged.  So far, the cable only cost $16 and the re-charge was free, so I wasn’t out a whole lot. I was finally ready to get things going a few days later – and ready to forget the whole affair – when I sat down to turn the key once again. Again, there was nothing. I was forced to call upon a higher authority (although God’s name was mentioned, I am referring to the mower repair people). They came out to pick it up and it was a long weekend until I heard from them again.

“I must have pulled 30 walnuts out of that thing, “the service fellow commented over the phone. “There are chewed wires lying around and I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ll have to order a new wire harness and that will take at least a week and…”  I phased out for a moment and returned just in time to hear him say “even after I plug the new wires in there may be some other problems.”  The estimate for labor was about a third of the original cost of the mower. I weakly gave my approval and hung up.

It should be mentioned that the warm spring weather was encouraging my grass to grow like a fast motion movie of a Chia Pet all this time. As of this writing, I still have not heard back from my repairman. We are entering the third week of mowerlessness and a small herd of bison were seen roaming in the back yard.

I saw my Female Red Squirrel the other day as she watched me cutting the front yard with my little push mower (bison are not allowed in the front yards in my neighborhood). If I were the sentimental type, I suppose I could have imagined that she was thanking me for my kindness.  I returned her glance and almost accepted these imaginary tender thoughts before abruptly catching myself. No, I thought, when I get my riding mower back I will run her and her babies over at the first opportunity.

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