Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 10, 2012

A Place of Small Drama

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:35 pm

During the early fall migration season, the Lake Huron lakeshore at Tawas Point is a hub of birding mania. Their presence is a brief uptick in a season of fading tourist interest. By the time the biting late October/early November gales begin to whip the angry waters into a froth, few human visitors venture out onto the dunes. Those that do manage a visit do so because they appreciate the starkness (or the lighthouse). There is nothing quite like dune country during the cold season. It is not barren, however. Life simply switches gears.

As one of those frigid visitors I wandered the shoreline recently – fully coated and hatted but stupidly un-gloved. There was a cold wind blowing in from the west but blue skies and puffy white clouds tempered the scene. In the interdunal spaces, protected from the wind, a few green things were stubbornly clinging to their colors.  A cluster of Ohio Goldenrod (see below) and an etch-a-sketch blade of dune grass contrasted with the pale sand. I have to admit, the only reason I took the shot of the goldenrod was because I initially thought it to be an example of the threatened Houghton’s Goldenrod, an endemic plant of north Lake Huron shores. Afterwards, in spite of my best efforts and facing the reality that the species doesn’t quite extend down the shore to Tawas, I switched my identification to the far less exotic sounding Ohio Goldenrod – another dune species.

Numbed by the cold, a Tiger Beetle was forced to pose for his portrait. They rarely sit still and almost never allow for a close approach. The shoreline varieties are brown, as opposed to the bright neon green of the inland species, so they blend into their environs perfectly. Even in a closely cropped photo this individual is hard to spot.

Due to a combination of winds and seasonal low water the end of Tawas Point was fully exposed. An open sand flat – punctuated by a few chunks of shipwreck wood – presented a scene of small drama. Balls of tannin foam created by the choppy waters of the bay, occasionally escaped the waterline and rolled across the sandbar like snowballs.  A lone Trumpeter Swan performed solo honks just offshore. She was perturbed by my presence and soon lifted off to join a cluster of Ring-billed gulls perched on a distant sandbar.

The only other truly active company I had out there, apart from the aloof swan, was a foraging Horned Lark. Birds of open spaces and low grass fields, Horned Larks are the only members of the lark family found in North America. Because this bird spends so much time in open shore environs they are commonly called Shore Larks in Europe.

My companion was picking through the flotsam for seeds and insects.  Like all the life that was moving over the flats, he too (it was a male with clear facial markings) was leaving tracks. Not only did the sign show it’s waddling manner of searching but clearly showed the long hind claw that is typical of the larks. It is called a Larkspur and some of you botanists out there might recall a flower of the same name with a long projection similar to the bird’s toe.  You know, that last fact might be interesting when relayed in a warm house issuing from the screen of a warm computer, but imagine how fascinating it would be when standing in a bitter wind and turning larkspur blue.

The small drama, as I mysteriously stated previously, involved hundreds of horn snails in a pickle. Like I said, snails in trouble qualify for “small” drama – no one can hear the screams of a thousand mollusks. Normally content with feeding over the submerged sand bottoms, these snails were desperately seeking refuge in the scattering of tiny puddles that remained. These puddles were rapidly disappearing and clusters of the shelled refugees were clinging to them. Recorded in the sand, their travels over the previous few hours were recorded as a series of artful lines.

The snails were not willingly creating art, mind you, that perception comes from the large gloveless naturalist that stood over them. My tracks were wandering over the sand flats just as randomly as theirs. At one point, two snails appeared to be involved in an accident as their paths converged and they were in the slow motion process of heaving insults at one another (h e y    w  a  t  c  h    i   t   b u d d y . . . w  a  s    y o u r   m o t h e r   a   c l a m ?). Another’s path revealed a desperate attempt to break free of his shrinking pool – only to be stopped in his tracks by the chilly weather.

Now, before we get all weepy-eyed about the fate of these fellows, I remind you that such critters are adapted to the variable nature of the shoreline shallows. Equipped with an operculum – a front door so to speak – they are capable of shutting the hatch and sealing themselves off from the cruel world. A large number of them ended up burrowing into the sand where they should be safe until the water returns.

If the water doesn’t come back before the next hard freeze then many of these snails will not make it, but let’s not dwell on that. I don’t think snails realize they are dead until nearly 3 hours after the fact anyway (“H e y   I    a m     d   e   a …).



  1. Gerry, I felt the cold in this post! Loved it though. You always find something intesting no matter where you go.

    Comment by carol carney — November 10, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

  2. playing at night, this is my favorite time of the day

    Comment by michel — November 25, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

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