Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 29, 2012

Things I would have written Part 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:56 pm

Sept. 14   Halloween Town & Moreau State Park

Before crossing the State line back into New York we paid a visit to Windsor, Vermont – the birthplace of Vermont. Apart from visiting Dan’s Windsor Diner, a chrome & wood diner car dating back to a much simpler era and the oddly named, but fascinating, American Precision Museum (site of the 1840’s Robbins and Lawrence Armory) I managed to focus in on the one thing the town is not likely to promote. Windsor Vermont is a Halloween town complete with a spooky old graveyard full of slate headstones topped with hollow-eyed angels and spiders. Lots of spiders.

I won’t dwell on this aspect, but the arachnids of Windsor appear to be working for Hollywood set designers. They have spanned nearly every building angle with webs and have occupied every crack and cranny in town. The stoplights at the corner of Main & State are mounted on the sidewalk like streetlights. The light on the northeast corner was completely draped with a layer of webbing (see below & here). It is real webbing and not the movie prop kind.

This means that Windsor is probably free of noxious all insect pests but few spider-phobic types would acknowledge that fact. Perhaps the town could hit on this as a slogan and proclaim themselves as “the bug free town” and remind folks that spiders are bug-eaters and are not bugs themselves.

The scenery around Lake Moreau in New York is a long way from that offered by Windsor’ween Town. The rolling topography and deep woods offered many highlights, but two came to the fore.

There was a beaver lodge actually marked on the park map. It was a real beaver lodge and not a creatively named picnic shelter. This thing shared as much ink on the paper guide as the other permanent facilities such as the bathrooms, park office and, well… picnic shelters. On one level this was like marking a woodpecker hole or a Chipmunk den, being a creature-made structure, but on the other hand it acknowledges the amazing abilities of our largest local rodent. Woodpeckers change location every year and chippy dens are hardly worth viewing. Beaver lodges can last for years and remain a part of the landscape long after the residents have moved on.

I assumed this lodge was abandoned but ample shoreline evidence proved that an active family of Castors still resided there. These guys had even attempted to dam up the narrows under the bridge between the lakes.  My efforts to see these fellows were a bit frustrating, however. Beavers are primarily nocturnal. I did see the pair in the twilight at around 7 pm and resolved to return the next morning to catch them again.

Early the next morning before the sun had sufficiently crept over the mountains enough to illuminate the lake, the beavers were again in evidence. Unfortunately they were in the process of heading home. I was able to see them linger for a moment before plunging under and entering the lodge for the day(see here). It seems that the Lake Moreau beavers keep a 7 to 7 night schedule. They would not show themselves in the full light of day for better observation/photography. Dam.

I couldn’t have asked for better view of the Red Eft that showed itself on the beach just as the first beams of morning light struck the opposite shore. Efts are the terrestrial stage of the Eastern Newt. They start out as aquatic larvae, leave the water for a few years to live as a land lubber, and eventually return to the water to spend the rest of their days as a water beast. The water form is a green gill breather with a substantial tail fin. On land it becomes bright orange-red lung breather with a round tail. I believe Newt Gingrich, for instance, transformed into Newt Rockne for a brief time.

There is a possibility that this particular Newt was recently transformed (after losing out on his candidacy for the lake presidency). He was discovered on the sandy beach heading toward the forest and was about as fresh looking as you can get. This little beast actually glowed. The pebbly skin texture, gummy worm glow, and bright red speckling made it look almost good enough to eat.

I did not eat that Eft, but instead let it continue on its terrestrial adventure. Red Efts have toxic skin (it’s not just the eye of the newt that makes for a good witches brew). They will emit noxious compounds when roughed up by potential predators. Ingesting one would either have made me very sick or have turned me into a politician.



P.S. Just for fun, I thought I’d include this roadside image taken in the neighborhood of Halloween Town – talk about mixed messages!

September 25, 2012

Things I would have written Part 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:14 pm

Sept. 9    Button Bay, Vermont

Button Bay is on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain (named after the notorious Samuel de). By some this is classified as a “Great Lake” – except by those who actually live among the Lakes. It is a great lake, to be sure, but just not in the capitol letter sense. This long narrow body of water on the New York/Vermont border certainly has seen its share of human history from French-Indian War actions at Fort Ticonderoga & Crown Point to the War of 1812 Naval Battle of Plattsburg.

The very name of the place where we stayed at Button Bay stemmed from the English period when the British soldiers noticed the peculiar circular formations found about the place and declared “Why them looks just like button moulds, they do.” Metal moulds, or molds, were used to cast pewter and brass buttons.  According to the official word, Button Mould Bay later was simplified to Button Bay because the Mould part was too hard to say or explain. In other words, the Brits really meant to say “them’s buttons.” As a doubtful Michigander I don’t fully buy this.

There were many oval & round clay concretions found here and some do look remarkably like buttons but most simply look like blobs.  At the point itself, a barren piece of glacial scarred Ordovician rock (see glacial grooves here) there are quite a few true “button moulds” exposed in the rock (see above).  They appear to be iron based concretions with a softer material inside. They really do look like button moulds…er, molds. The soldiers were probably referring to these things. Why would they say mould when they meant buttons? I believe they meant what they said. One doesn’t see a spoon-shaped object and declare that it looks like a spoon mold – no, either it looks like a spoon or the mold from which is made.

Perhaps there is some linguistic thing going on here that I don’t understand so I’d better push the STOP button and let it drop before exposing my own ignorance. I did spot a pair of Daddy Long-legs (see here) on the rocks apparently arguing/discussing  the same issue (“thems buttons – no, them’s molds”…etc). Actually they were engaged in a more amorous endeavor but for the sake of visuals I will stick to my earlier statement.

The great Lake Champlain is down this year. It is really down, according to some of the locals, to record levels.  Multiple beach ridges – at least six – are exposed to create fresh-water tidal flats.  The place was attracting quite a few shorebirds picking through the exposed mire. Among the long-legged long-necked Greater Yellowlegs (see below) were pint sized Semipalmated Plovers (second below) and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

The Yellowleg name is pretty self-explanatory but the Semipalmated thing needs another “button mould” type explanation.  To be palmated means to be “hand-like”. To be semi-palmated literally means somewhat hand-like. In the case of these shorebirds it means that there is partial, or reduced, webbing between the front three toes – in other words their feet are more hand-like than duck-like. O.K. ,that makes more sense than the button thing.

These two small Semipalmated shorebirds are migrants making their way down to the warmer Gulf climes for the winter. The Semipalmated Plover looks like a Killdeer reduced in a shrinky dink oven – losing one of the neck rings in the process. It is in the same family as the Killdeer but looks more like a Killfawn.

One of the Semipalmated Sandpipers posed for me among the wave-washed rocks of Button Point.  I hate identifying shore birds because I am shore to get the identification wrong. There are far too many subtle points to consider. In fact, I might even call it a shorebird mold. In this case, I initially thought the bird was a Sanderling. It was very small and certainly looked like all those Sanderling pictures. As usual I was wrong – I think.

Because the bird was so co-operative I was able to take many shots of it (see above and here). This allowed me to take a closer look, after the fact, to note that the tiny fowl had back toes. Sanderlings lack a back toe and possess only three forward pointing (and un-palmated) toes. The Semipalmated Sandpiper was the only other thing fitting the fully-toed description.

Again I will need to push the STOP button and risk further ignorance exposure at this point.  Never publish a shorebird image unless you are willing to accept revision. I am therefore waiting for two revisions – one on my Button Bay theory and the other on this bird. Perhaps I should spend more time on vacation looking at the scenery rather than pondering such questions. At least the scenery is what it is – no more, no less.

September 20, 2012

Things I would have written Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:15 am

Sept. 6   In the Adirondacks     

Although not exactly Rip Van Winkle territory, the Adirondacks of upper New York State certainly have that misty mountain Winkle feel. You could fall asleep here for decades and wake up to a place that looks exactly the same as it always was. We stopped at Eagle Point  State Park, located on Schroon Lake at the eastern edge of the Adirondacks on the Vermont side of the state, for an overnight stay. Schroon is one of those narrow north-south bodies of water carved out by the glaciers. The opposite shore is speckled with cabins but the un-tamed peaks behind them dominate the horizon. It is a deep cold lake that probably holds a lot of deep cold secrets.

My wife and I were pretty much the only residents of the park – this being very late in the season. The place was scheduled to close down for the year in just a few more days. This, of course, allowed for ample solitary exploration of the abandoned lakeshore the following day.  As expected, a singular loon was gliding the still lake waters in the morning (would it be a northern lake without one?) along with another solitary fisherman in the form of a human in a small aluminum boat.

As stunning as the scenery was, my attention was drawn to a pile of mussel shells on the bank bordering the sand beach. There were dozens of them in the cluster and all of them were cleaned out. Each had been opened and the valves remained connected by their hinge – “butterflied,” I guess you’d call it. This bore all the characteristics of a muskrat midden.

Muskrats are primarily vegetarians but they do not adhere strictly to this regime. They have to have a bit of bloody meat every now and then in order to stay interesting. Fresh-water mussels are one of their favorite guilty pleasures. Muskrats will pig down on mussel flesh whenever and wherever they are readily available. A purple nacred (that means purple mother-of-pearl) Sand Shell and a thin-shelled Paper Shell appear to be the most common varieties in this lake.

It is still somewhat of a mystery as to how muskrats open these things, but they do manage to force them open enough to sever the single muscle that holds the two shells together. On occasion, they will break the thinner shells in the process, but for the most part the only evidence left are some tooth marks marking the where the mussel was carried.  They rarely separate the two shells at the hinge. Because they are creatures of habit, the ‘rat will return to the same location repeatedly for their shellfish respite and thus these piles are created.

The only unusual thing about this muskrat midden was that it was located nearly 25 feet from the water. Due to the unusually hot summer, the lake level was obviously down by many feet. The original shore lapped at the base of the slope where the shells were deposited and it is likely that whatever ‘rat  built this shell temple did so in the early spring when the water was still up. “Eat clams while the water is high” is an old muskrat saying (original text: “wheep chip chatter gnash-chup”) and it certainly applied here.

Elsewhere in camp, squirrels were again part of the main show. I’m sure there were raccoons about (along with a few black bears) but the only garbage raider I saw was yet another portly Grey Squirrel. This one was trying to act innocent -like he was just using the edge of the dumpster as a perch -but I know he was eying the contents and was ready to dive in when I interrupted him. And talk about bushy tails. This one was certainly well-endowed.  It’s not a muskrat saying, but perhaps you’ve heard the one about “Big bushy tails means that a long hard winter is ahead.” Although this is a totally false concept,  it can be said with complete confidence that it means that winter will eventually get here.

A brightly spotted giant slug completed my morning discoveries at Schroon Lake. It was sliming along the Hemlock needle mulch looking for someplace to hide for the upcoming winter. Sure, it’s a bit early to take cover but slugs are not all that fast. It also serves as a reminder that this place is not entirely timeless because these are European introductions (and so, I remind myself, am I).

September 16, 2012

Things I would have written Part 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:14 pm


On the road to the Adirondacks and Vermont, I had the pleasure to see lots of things and think about what I might say and write about them. Convenient Internet is not a feature of the North Woods, however, and I was unable to translate any of this into timely blog entries. The Chipmunks were more than willing to transmit messages via the chip-chat network but I find that this type of communication tends to end at major roadway crossings. So, I did the journal thing and wrote down some thoughts with the idea that I would later post them into a set of “things I would have written” and treat them as part a stream of consciousness.  So, here are some of those things. I will post them every few days.


Sept. 4  Lake Erie State Park, New York

Here in the wild homelands of the extinct Erie Nation, the eastern end of the lake is vastly different from the western end of the beast. The rolling shoreline topography supports countless vineyards. The beaches lap upon slabs of table rock and dramatic sheer cliffs (see above scene). This place looks good – even in the pouring rain.

Sheepshead appear to be the dominant fish of these coastlines – they are, at least, the dominant dead fish in these parts. The beaches are peppered with their hollow dried carcasses. Each fish promised a unique crop of “lucky stones.”  Lest you sneer at poking about the dried innards of a dead fish, I remind you that a dead beach fish is only a few weeks removed from the simmering one upon your frying pan. I also remind you that the thing is dried and more like beef jerky than rotten sushi.

Lucky stones are actually ototliths, or ear stones. These pearl-like structures come from the inner ear of the fish and act as a balance aide. Some folks mount them in jewelry or carry them about in their pockets. While some are offered for the plucking from disintegrating skulls others have been naturally separated and can be found in the clean washed sand. I guess that the idea of a luckless fish producing a lucky ornamentsis akin to a luckless rabbit yielding one of its treasured feet.

On a more terrestrial note, the ornamental crab trees about the campground are Central Station for the resident squirrels. Fattened on the red fruits, both Red and Grey Squirrels are lazing about. The Greys are the larger, and portlier of the two. The belly overhang on the lackadaisical Grey Squirrel pictured below speaks for itself.  A particular Red Squirrel defensively hugged her branch upon spotting me (see above). This tactic only works when the danger is directly below, and not off to the side, so the stunt looked silly.

A single Red-headed Woodpecker stopped by to sample the fruits but was less than willing to put up with my presence. It pondered my bulk for a few seconds while perched in a nearby Red Pine (riddled with Sapsucker holes, you may notice). This splendid bird, even though in the same state of teror as the Red Squirrel hugging the branch, certainly looked more dignified.

September 3, 2012

Marbles Under the Red Oak Tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:19 pm

I knew they weren’t actually marbles, but they fascinated me none-the-less. Scattered upon the ground under a spreading Red Oak tree were dozens of them – small globes nearly perfect in their roundness, They reminded me of those glazed clay marbles of old with their pinkish-maroon coloration and speckled appearance. All had some heft to them and this also lent itself to the marble analogy. Unfortunately, they were slightly too large to use on a Chinese Checker board and not quite heavy enough to engage a glass marbled foe in a round of parking lot Ringer.

That these were some type of Oak Apple Gall I was certain (at least as far as certainty can go when talking to oneself). Galls are structures created when an insect lays its egg in a plant stem or leaf and causes the tissues to swell up. Specific structures form on specific plants due to specific insects. With all that specificity going on there are thousands of gall-making insects that can be identified based on gall shape and host plant alone. We hardly ever see the actual insects because they are minute – to say the least. Oaks are especially prone to galls and Oak Apples are caused by eensy weensy wasps.

Given this complicated background it is not sufficient to simply identify an oak gall as an Apple Gall and get away with it. It is morally o.k. to do so (lightening will not strike you down, for instance) but slightly lazy. Unfortunately for you, I was not feeling lazy when I set about to write this blog.  You see, there are some 50 species of tiny oak apple gall-producing wasps in North America. These galls are divided up into spongy and hollow types. Lest you are getting a bit uncomfortable here please hang on – I am not that un-lazy as to go through the entire process.

Suffice it to say that Hollow Oak Galls look like the solid ones (see here) but the proof is in the holding. They can be speckled and luminous, just like the solid ones but slightly more oblong vs. round, but have no weight (really?). Hollow galls are mostly air (really, Gerry?) so they…O.K., I’ll stop. You get the point, But, I insist on showing you the incredible innards of a hollow oak gall (see here) just because I can.  The grub lives in the small chamber at the center of all those tendrils (see here).

The issue here is really about those original solid galls which I held in my palm. If I were continuing on the hollow oak gall thread I’d have to find out the exact type of the pictured examples and I’m not going to do that. No, the question is the exact identity of these solid marble galls.

The real surprise came in cutting one of these things open to reveal the deep liver color of the insides. Beads of “blood” actually dripped out of the cut as if slicing into a fresh Dik-dik liver. I’ve never actually cut into, leave alone seen, a real Dik-dik liver but it sounds so much more fascinating than saying a deer liver. Dik-diks are tiny African antelopes so they would have, presumably, tiny livers closer in size to a solid oak gall right?  I’m just trying to be visual here.

The juice content of these galls was so heavy that it prompted me to make a few gall prints on the back side of a receipt that I had in my pocket. The reddish color remained intact on the paper after it dried– a fact that should not be surprising when you consider that oak galls have long been a source of ink. The prints even revealed the central hollow chamber where the insect itself resides (see below).

A pint-sized grub came out of that center. There was no real way to reverse this step once completed. I suppose it possible, even if impractical; to tape the two halves together but in this case the grub was also cut in half. Let’s just say that if this had been a Dik-dik inside that gall it would have been rendered into a singular Dik. A dead Dik (at which point you should be saying Ha as opposed to Ha Ha).

Because the tiny wasp larva unwillingly sacrificed itself for the sake of education, he and I were committed to completing his story even if it hurts (more him than me). After some time I arrived at the correct identity and am able to tell you that this type of solid gall is called an Oak Acorn Plum Gall. Got that? The scientific name of the actual wasplet is about a mile long and it would hurt me to have to type it out. You can Google it if you really want to know.

Apart from the Dik-dik like nature of the galls they are unique in that they develop off of the acorn caps. Most, if not all, of the oak apples form out of the leaves.  The galls are about the size of the nut itself before they fall off.

The larva inside the other Plum Galls layered over the ground will eventually pupate and emerge as micro wasps about the size of the “o” on this page. They will generate a whole new crop of marbles next year and I will only cut one open if asked (you’ll need to ask twice). The question is whether you will Google that scientific wasp name or “Dik-dik liver” first.




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