Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 27, 2012

A Skinkos on the Dockos

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:47 pm

The Five-lined Skink uses his head,

when keeping his predators fed.

He offers his tail

to insure they will fail

in eating his body instead.

The last time I saw a Five-lined Skink, it was peeking out from between the cushions of a pumpkin orange over-stuffed chair that someone had discarded along the edge of the road. As you might expect, it was the last place I expected to see one (one does not expect to see a lizard sitting in a roadside chair except, perhaps, in a Geico commercial). That one eluded further investigation and escaped as I tore through the chair. No, it was not a lounge (chair) lizard!

Granted, that experience wasn’t all that long ago but it was preceded by a lifetime of drought. I’ve seen these common reptiles in Kentucky and parts south, but I’ve never seen a wild one in Michigan. I’ve seen wild caught Michigan skinks in captivity, pictures of Michigan skinks, and even stories about where to find Michigan skinks but up to that recent chair incident that was about it. So, you can imagine my disappointment in getting only a Sasquatch glimpse of one.

As a native Michigander, I live in a state of lizard deprivation. We only have two species, although for all practical purposes we only have one with any regularity. The Six-lined Race-runner can be found in the thumb area (and possibly in the extreme S.W. dune country if I recall). There are no one, two, three-lined, or any other lined species found here. If the thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel were a lizard it might make up for all those missing Michigan stripes, but alas it is not. No, the Five-lined Skink will have to do and it would do just fine if it would only show itself every now and then.

Well, as you can see by my pictures, my drought has finally ended. While this incident is of true significance only to me, in this time of sharing all of one’s personal secrets on-line I feel compelled to share it with you. Consider this a “like” or “pin” or “a stick in the eye” or whatever, but consider it. I suspect you fellow Michiganders out there have led an equally lizardless life up to now and can feel my elation at pretending to be an Arizonan or a New Mexican.  In true Five-lined skink style this fine specimen turned up in one of the most un-expected of places – my own yard.  It was sunning on my Dollar Lake dock near West Branch.

I don’t need to elaborate on the reasons why this lizard is called a Five-lined Skink, but should explain that “skink” comes from the Greek “skinkos” which means lizard (as in “oh my goshish, Demetrius, theris a skinkos in the sinkos!). I shouldn’t, but I will, go on to point out that the presence of four legs, blinking eyes, and ear openings are all features that distinguish this creature from a snake.

My dock lizard was a younger individual as evidenced by its sky-blue tail. Mature skinks are paler in color, lack the blue tail hue, and have a reddish head that looks like a stubbed toe. My eye was drawn to that wonderful electric tail as the reptile dashed across the dock and threatened to jump into the rushes. I was extremely cautious in my approach, but every time I moved the skink shifted closer to the edge and waved its blue appendage back and forth (see short video here). This curious behavior has a very good purpose, of course. Skinks can sacrifice their tails in the event they are attacked by a predator and it will detach if roughly grabbed. The detached tail will continue to twitch and wiggle on its own as the owner makes its hasty escape. It will grow a new tail, so the loss is only temporary. By flashing that lure while it is still attached, the lizard is making sure that it – and not the body – will become the object of attack.

I eventually moved one step too close and the skink took a header into the weeds, but not before pausing just a second to dangle that blue tail out of the grass. Forget the fact that Five-lined Skinks are among the most common lizards in North America and forget the fact that they are distributed across the state and even the central U.P.  It has taken me over a half-century to catch a quality glimpse of one and I am satisfied. My next step is to put an orange chair out by the dock and see if it is tempted to come out again.

July 22, 2012

Birds in a Bath

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:23 pm

This recent bout hot summer weather has been murder on all living things and birds are no exception. While birds can’t sweat (they can pant), they can seek relief through shade and shower. Bathing is a popular pastime for hot little birds. Some smaller birds will hit the liquid five times a day. This is not just a function of cooling, however.  It is also a means of staying fit.  By washing off the excess preening oil, birds can prevent their feathers from becoming matted and thus maintain their avian attire.

Open puddles are safe bathing spots but they become harder to find in hot weather (they dry up!). It is no wonder, then, that a certain renegade puddle of water has become a “hot” spot for a whole host of birds lately. The location results from a faulty sprinkler system leaking water onto a low point of a sidewalk so the resulting puddle rarely dries up. Fully exposed to the sun, the water becomes quite warm from the effects of solar heating. I suppose the place is like a Roman bath. About the only thing missing from the customers of this mini-spa are little white towels, hairy chests and gold chains.

The diversity of avian bathers was remarkable. While observing the spot for only ten minutes (actually 11 minutes but who’s counting), I saw Cedar Waxwings, Indigo Buntings, Goldfinches (see above), Baltimore Orioles (see below), Yellow Warblers (all the rest of the photos), and lots of Robins. Even though there were many different kinds of fowl in attendance, all seemed to share a common technique.

Some birds were un-nerved by my presence (as would I, come to think of it) but most eventually waded in and, after modestly looking about, fluffed their feathers and bent down for a polite belly dip. A wild series of wing flapping then followed in which water was sprayed about with wild abandon. The head and breast were eventually plunged into the drink as multiple waves of liquid were allowed to roll down the back. After a repeat series of these maneuvers, at which stage the birds looked more like “drowned rats,” than birds, they flew up to the nearest branch to shake, fluff, and preen themselves back into shape.

I especially enjoyed the performance of a female Yellow Warbler who visited the “The Baths”. She proceeded as described above and completely let herself go by the end of the sequence. Like those who preceded her, she opened her mouth after the first dip and kept it open until the bath was done. I hate to assign emotion to any animal, but you’ve got to admit this looks like a very satisfied little bird (see photos).



Yellows are wetland birds and it is likely they do this kind of thing all the time in the privacy of the marsh but they don’t often show themselves. They dash about elusively and are more often heard than seen (saying “Tee Tee Tee Tiddly Dee”).  Seen in the act of washing, however, these little yellow birds – in fact all feathered fowl – are personalized. One can understand what they are doing and appreciate what it means to frolic in the water. I’d say they almost appear human but I won’t (say it, that is.)


July 15, 2012

A Flying Lobster

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:39 pm

There are certain rules of life that seem to be set in stone. Pigs and Lobsters don’t fly, for instance, and butterflies fly during the day and moths fly at night. Every rule needs a caveat, however, and few are absolute. Pigs and lobsters can fly if they are aboard a jet. Lobsters fly all the time as they are transported cross country from lobster pot to cooking pot. I’m not sure if any live lobsters take this flight, but dead ones certainly do. I just heard that live pot-bellied pigs are allowed to fly aboard jet-liners if they accompany a human as an official  “companion” or seeing-eye pig (in a pig’s eye, you say).

In the case of the day-time butterflies and night-time moths, this rule works almost all the time but is far from perfect. I’ve frequently seen butterflies flying after 6 pm and often well into twilight on warm evenings. None fly in the dark of night, so you could say this part is true. On the other hand, there are many moths that will fly during the day and some that fly only during the day. Probably the best known of the day flyers are the Clearwing moths. One of them, the Bumble-bee Clearwing Moth, actually looks something like a flying lobster.

I came upon one of those Bumble-bee Clearwings the other day – or, I should say that it came upon me. You never know when or where you will see one of these moths (actually not a set rule, because if you hang around the proper nectar plants long enough you will increase your chances dramatically).  This creature was nectaring at a stand of pink-flowered Bergamots. I was watching a Silver-spotted Skipper imbibe (see here) on the same set of flowers when the Clearwing came buzzing into view.

These are frantic feeders and rarely stay around for long (note that I didn’t say “NEVER stay long” because that would be another one of those breakable “rules”). I felt lucky to have about 30 seconds of observation before this insect moved on. In action it appeared as a tiny hummingbird and in appearance like a large bumble bee, but their feeding style was pure hawkmoth.

Clearwings are members of the Sphinx Moth family – sleek jet-winged moths also known as Hawk Moths. As caterpillars, members of this family typically have a “horn” projecting off their posterior end (not ALL of them do) and raise up into a sphinx-like pose when alarmed (thus the name). As adults they nectar at long-tubed flowers and feed by un-coiling and inserting un-naturally long tongues into the flowers. They do so while in constant hovering flight and typically maintain position by extending the front pair of legs so that they are in contact with the petals. In moth-like fashion, most sphinxes do fly at night but the Clearwing clan performs their daily rounds under the full light of the mid-day sun.

My Clearwing carefully probed from flower to flower as it sought the freshly opened blooms on the Bergamot heads. Antennae held high and wings ablur, the creature flared out the “hairs” on the end of its abdomen to look like the tail of a miniature lobster. This was the only part of the creature upon which I could focus. The camera lens could not capture the motion of the wings which buzzed in the manner of a bee.

I did a little research after the fact to find out exactly how fast these wings were beating so that I could say something beyond “really fast.” I did come up around 85 beats per second. This is about the same as the Hummingbird but much slower than that of the Bumblebee (which apparently doesn’t really bumble if you consider that it buzzes at 130 plus beats per second). One account put the speed of sphinx moth wingtips at around 20 mph. That is “really fast.”

There are four species of Clearwings, so the exact identity of my subject was questionable. The dark legs, golden-brown color, and thorax stripe peg it as a Bumblebee Clearwing, but admittedly I would not have been able to make that call without having the stop-action pictures in front of me. There was little doubt that it was a Clearwing because it had clear wings with purplish scale on the wing margins.

Of course, it would be fitting to end this discussion by saying that even Clearwing moths don’t always have clear wings. It’s all about that solid rule thing. When they first emerge out of the pupae, their wings are fully covered with scales. The scales are loosely attached, however, and they quickly come off as the moth buzzes into action.  The Bumblebee Clearwing, like all the Clearwings, burst into active life in a cloud of floating scales and their path of life becomes clear.

July 7, 2012

A Little Hairy Deal

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:19 pm

When I first came upon a clump of white fuzz sticking to a cluster of Black Walnut leaves hanging over the trail, my first thought was “oh, the fall webworms must be starting up.”  Even when I stopped to give them a closer examination, and noted there were several tight groupings of pubescent caterpillars engaged in group feeding, I said “oh, the fall webworms must be starting up.” Though I noticed that there were no actual webs to go along with these webworms, I still stuck to my automated mental response. Webworms, surely…webless webworms, or worms currently without a web, but webworms none-the-less.

Unfortunately, the webless part was difficult to overcome. But, they looked so much like webworms that it was hard for me to clear my mind for anything else. Every avenue of inquiry led back to the same answer.

I will admit to getting stuck, from time to time, in such mental loops. For instance, the water pump at our cabin went out recently and I assumed it was due to a power surge that tripped the breaker. I flipped the breaker switch once with no result. This should have confirmed that electricity was not the issue, but I insisted on flipping it again and again and again for good measure, just in case. All my logic roads led back to the breaker and I was left helplessly flipping the switch back and forth like a trained monkey looking for a peanut reward. (It turned out to be a clog at the well pump head.)

I finally did a web search (go figure!) with the keywords “webworms without webs” just to quell my obvious confusion on the caterpillar question. I was hoping to find an entry that talked about how a webworm colony starts off without a web or that there are rare occasions when they don’t build a website. No such luck. While Webworms will hatch out in a mass, they immediately set about wrapping a silk bag around a bunch of leaves and will feed within the protective folds of the structure. As the colony grows the web bag expands. The larvae do not leave the confines of the web until they leave the colony to pupate. In other words, they are never truly webless until their last stage.

It was a random on-line picture that finally cleared the cobwebs from my head. The communal fellows pictured here were early stage Hickory Tiger Moth caterpillars. This species starts off in a colonial mode but the individuals go their own way after a fairly short time. One by one they drop from the main tree via a silk line and start anew and alone. By the time they are ready to pupate later in the summer, they bear little resemblance to the lightly haired worms of their youth. The larvae take on the appearance of a dirty white toothbrush with a row of stout bristle clusters running down their backs. Tufts of black setae will project from the front and back ends and the alternate name of Hickory Tussock Moth will become suitable. As newly emerged caterpillerets, however, they look like…well, fall webworms.

It might seem odd that Hickory Tiger Moths would be feeding on Walnut – especially given the fact that Fall Webworms love Walnut. But, like many moth larvae, they are eclectic in their tastes and will feed on a variety of nut trees as well as a number of non-nut trees. “Nut ‘N’ None-nut Tree Tigers” sounds rather awkward, so we must accept the “Hickory Tiger” name and move on.

After having said all of this, I will admit that the identity of these creatures was not really all that crucial. It was their neat side by side ordering that initially attracted my attention. Even though the larvae were not especially interesting as individuals, as a gang of precision leaf munchers they were eye-catching. The only reason I needed to find their true identity was so that I could justify this post this with a solid species label (I just HATE not knowing what something is before I pretend knowing something about it).


NOTE:  I am including a photo below & here of an actual group of Fall Webworms that I took after posting this entry. If nothing else it might help plead my case for caterpillar confusion (see the webs…).


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