Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 28, 2013

The Bird and the Bud

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:59 am

Nature is full of finely twined inter-relationships and dependencies – wolves and moose, figs and fig wasps, middle-aged men and Tim Horton’s coffee. No one living thing can stand alone. I was reminded of this when I came upon a Ruffed Grouse feeding high in an Aspen Tree near West Branch, Michigan. The rotund bird was plucking the emerging flower catkins off the twigs as if they were berries. One cannot cite a better example of interdepency than that between the Ruffed Grouse and the Quaking Aspen. The two populations perform a sort of dance.

Ruffed Grouse, or partridge as they are known in these parts, are primarily ground dwelling fowl. They are, after all, camouflaged in order to blend into the forest floor. As chicks, they feed heavily on protein-rich insects but soon lock into a regimen of plant food ranging from hazelnut, birch, and willow catkins to acorns. Aspens, however, are the single most important year round food for Ruffed Grouse. They feed on the winter buds, spring flowers, and even the leaves.

This Aspen affinity necessitates regular flights up to lofty twiggy perches. Admittedly grouse look rather awkward when so engaged – especially during winter and early spring – and are exposed to attacks by large birds of prey such as Goshawks.  It is a benefit to their overall health to eat quickly and researchers have determined that a prompt partridge can fill its crop in as little as 15 minutes. Once filled, the birds glide back down into dense cover and digest their meal in cryptically-colored peace.

Not all Aspen trees are equal in the eyes of a springtime Ruffed Grouse. Only staminate trees, or male trees, are patronized by Ruffed Grouse. Like other members of the popular family, individual trees are either male or female. April is flowering time for Quaking Aspen and the fuzzy masculine flowers are called Catkins (just thought you’d like to know that for some reason).

Aspen Catkin

Add to this the fact that not all male Aspens are grouse-equal either. Not only do the grouse prefer older trees but, for some reason, only certain individual trees are considered worthy of their patronage. They will consistently feed at one tree while totally ignoring the one next to it. According to those same researchers who determined the crop-filling time mentioned earlier one mature male Aspen can provide enough food to satisfy a single grouse for 8-9 days. So, why ignore a perfectly good Aspen? The answer, my friend, is chemistry (isn’t it always!).

Let’s be brief about this thing. Buds and flowers from grouse feeding trees have more protein content than those ignored by the birds. They also contain lower levels of a nasty sounding chemical called coniferal benzoate. In short, the grouse know a good flower when they taste it. Good taste translates into high nutrition value. If you are going to expose yourself to danger you might as well eat the good stuff. None out of ten Goshawks also agree that the best tasting grouse come from the best quality Aspens.

The mystery – the dance element, if you were – is that grouse populations fluctuate on a regular basis. They are on a short 10 year cycle within a longer 20 year cycle. Although amusing sounding, it is serious scientific geek-speak to say that there are low-low years, high-high years, low-high years, and high-low years! The cycle within a cycle phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with Al Gore or bad human planet-bashing humans. It seems that the Aspens are partly responsible for this, because in some years they are in-edible and shift their chemical allegiances. There are good and bad (as well as bad-bad, good-bad etc.) years for aspens and good and bad years for Grouse. This up and down grouse also translates to the grouse predators as well.

As a way to fully involve myself in this discussion, I decided to try a taste test. What’s good for the grouse is good for the naturalist, I sez to me-self. So, I selected a male flower from a fine-looking male specimen of Quaking Aspen, bit into it, chewed it, and the result was a bad-bad grouse face (see reaction shot here). Apparently my sample was one of those high coniferal benzoate types which tasted like a pine cone cooked in turpentine – in other words fit for a Martini drinker. I will need to develop my grouse senses further if I am to pursue this line of foraging.

April 19, 2013

A Not-So-Secret Skunk

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:01 am

I broke one of my own golden rules recently (rules fractured and mended many times). I try to take my camera everywhere I go, no matter how trivial the venture. Well, it doesn’t go with me when I cross the road to the mailbox, but that is only because of the fear that the thing would be destroyed if I ever got hit by a passing car. My camera-as-body-part concept stems from the fact that I am a lousy photographer and that I can make up for my inadequacies in this department by catching unusual things using digital magic. Call it serendipity or luck, but my camera and I have seen some great things together.

When I drove my daughter, Katelyn, to the University of Michigan for her Masters program interview I opted not to bring my magical digital camera. We were going to be zooming into and out of campus and there would be zero opportunity for any extended photographic endeavors. How was I to know that a very tame wild skunk would be out wandering around one of the dorm units in broad daylight. And what premonition could have told me that the thing would allow me to approach within a few dozen feet. Also, it is important to note that it was Spring Break and that there were no students walking about and that the campus was virtually abandoned. Did I mention it was in broad daylight?

I, without my good camera, finally convinced Katelyn to allow me use of her cell phone in order to capture some “record” of the occurrence. What you see here on this blog are from her camera phone. They are not bad, but…..o.k., I won’t say anymore about the camera or lack of. So, you are probably wondering, why this skunk was such a great opportunity?

Skunks, those black and white members of the weasel clan, are very nocturnal beasts. They come out under the cover of darkness to forage for lawn grubs, peer into trash bags, or sneak about under grandstands. Caught in the edge of a car headlight beam or spotted as a ghostly white “V” slinking through the inky blackness, they are like ghosts themselves.  Daytime sightings are limited to motionless (and odoriferous) roadkills or sick individuals who should not be approached under any circumstance. Healthy daytime skunks are a rare sight. My U of M skunk (some odd phraseology for a Michigan State Grad such as myself) was a rare beast for a rare day. It was prime for photograph….o.k., I promised not to say any more about this.

No two skunks are alike. This individual had a narrow white pattern and a mostly black rump and tail. Our little stinker was actively engaged in grub hunting. Stopping every now and then to dig small craters with its long front claws, he then probed the excavations with his flexible snout and extracted unseen morsels for a satisfying chew session. Often these circular holes are the only sign we daytimers have that our yard was visited by a black-and-whiter. The lawn around the complex was riddled with these holes.

The skunk ignored me until I was within 50 feet or so. They have poor eyesight but excellent smell – that is they can smell excellently as opposed to smelling good – and I am confident he knew that the creep with the cell phone was there all along. Upon my reaching his appointed “worry” zone, he paused to lock his gaze on me, sniff the air, then began to waddle along the building wall towards his den. The waddle became a see-saw gallop when I decided to keep up with him on a parallel track. My daughter kept up with me, although she didn’t confess until later that she was more than nervous about chasing a skunk. The thought never occurred to me.

Upon reaching his den, a hole under a concrete slab supporting the electric box, the skunk hesitated as if to see what I would next. I, of course, approached (at that point I don’t know what Katelyn did). About the time I reached 15 feet I did start to crunch the numbers in my head about spray distance. Later I found this distance to be up to 12 feet. Fortunately the skunk decided to duck into his hole at this point.

He didn’t retreat deeply, however, and remained just inside the entrance to peer out at the two interlopers. Scraping in a few leaves, he kept fairly nonchalant about the whole thing until backing in out of sight.

That, as they say, should have been that.  I returned a few days later with my magical digital device to see if I could get a second chance. It was the same time of the morning, and the campus was still in quiet spring break mode. Of course, the skunk was nowhere to be seen and I was skunked. On top of this disappointment I discovered that his den hole had been thoroughly plugged with bark chips and dirt by the grounds maintenance staff.

The skunk story, at least my part in it, was over. There was another secret entrance on the other side of the slab which leads me to believe our skunk will continue to operate. Perhaps he’ll revert back to night mode so that he will be undetected. As a University animal he should have been a bit smarter. I too will be smarter about my golden rule from now on.

April 13, 2013

A Nearly Perfect Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:25 am

I have spent the last few days chasing elusive little suckers around my backyard. The suckers in question were saavy woodpeckers who, as temporary visitors to my little chunk of earth, were wary beyond belief. It is fairly easy to sneak up on one of “my” resident Downy or Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but one must be exceedingly patient when closing in on a migrant Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. When a pair is involved in the scenario, each armed with a set of alert eyes, the task is made even more challenging.

In short, these birds can be a royal pain in the neck. Long periods of looking skyward will do that to a middle aged body. The pain of Sapsucker watching was well worth it, however, because these attractive and animated birds are doubly perfect – or, to be more accurate – doubly nearly perfect. How can one ignore perfection?

When the Sapsuckers are in town you can bet that spring is perfectly official – in spite of what your porch thermometer might be saying! The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the perfect bird to herald the arrival of the season. Robins and bluebirds, because they often stay through the winter, are not true spring sentinels. Virtually all of the Sapsuckers migrate south and spend their winter months in the Southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America. You can bet that the bird you are seeing in southern Michigan is a new arrival. Unfortunately our southern sucker-sighting season is short. They pass through our region on their way to their breeding territories in the northern half of the state.

Medium-sized members of the woodpecker clan, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a nearly perfect common name. They are mottled black & white birds with red head features (the males have a red forehead and throat while the female lacks the red throat), but they do have a yellowish belly and feed on tree sap. Because they do not actually “suck” that sap we need to qualify the second part of their name, however. Sap-lapper or Sap-licker might be more accurate. They peck a line of shallow holes in tree trunks that look like the result of machine gun fire. These holes weep sugary sap and the birds make regular visits throughout the day to feed at their particular sap “wells.” Sapsuckers have a hairy tip on the end of their tongues which sops up the sweet liquid like a paper towel.

The sap-lappers hanging about my yard were very actively engaged in their profession.  Covering a feeding territory which encompassed several backyards, the pair spent their daytime hours visiting the sap wells. It took about five to ten minutes to complete a feeding circuit. Upon arrival at a set of sap holes the birds rocked their heads back and forth like metronomes as they examined the weeping wells. Then they carefully probed selected openings with their furry tongues. Because they also eat the sap-seeking insects the sapsuckers made a few pecks to pick up these extra morsels.  Each visit was short and they continued on their appointed duties without delay.

In my yard, the birds had sap works in my two Pecan trees (yes, I said Pecans) as well as several Black Walnuts, a Red Pine, at least one Red Maple and some of the large Cottonwoods across the creek. True to tradition, sapsuckers are not picky when it comes to sap trees. I can only imagine that each tree offers up a different taste similar, in human terms, to the perceived difference between a Stout and a Pale Ale. By the way, Sapsuckers do occasionally get drunk on tree sap when it ferments in the hot spring sun.

It is worth mentioning one more point about this pointy-billed sap connoisseur.  The scientific name of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the one that really matters in official lingo, is Sphyrapicus varius. This name, a combination of Greek & Latin, literally means “mottled pointed hammer.” Now that is a perfect name no matter how you look at it.

April 7, 2013

A Tennessee Waltz

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:00 pm

Although there were other more important, and religiously topical, reasons for heading south over the Easter weekend one minor cause involved Spring chasing. The season advances northward about 15 miles a day – or so they say.  So, like an excited dog greeting his master’s car at the end of a long driveway we were able to meet spring at its current position and hurry back home to await its coming. We met the front lines at Knoxville, Tennessee. There, even though the weather was cool, things were pushing up and out.

For a northern Naturalist this was a great treat and I trust you southern types will excuse me for fawning over common stuff. Ya’ll come up here sometime and you’d do the same. Believe it or not I even spotted a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, a Passenger Pigeon, and a single large Easter Bunny. No matter where you are from these are rare sights (explanation to follow).Ijams Nature Center (pronounced “eyems in northern speak) provided the primary opportunity to ramble in a piece of wild land along the Tennessee River.

The Cutleaf Toothwort and Bloodroot of Ijams were already past their peak. The delicate white petals of the Bloodroots lay scattered on the forest floor as a result of some bad treatment by a heavy rainstorm. Perhaps the most prominent wildflowers of the day were the showy triplicate leaves of the Yellow Wakerobin – an Appalachian representative of the Trillium clan sometimes called the Toadshade. Out of some 38 species of Trillium in North America, the Wakerobins offer most of their beauty in the mottled appearance of their leaves. The flowers are slender and reduced when compared to other Trilliums, but the leaves rival those of the Trout lilies in décor.


Tree lichens sprouted in little puffs here and there. One species, called Bushy Beards (I name which I especially lichen!) is fond of maple trees. Flat-topped structures – called Apothecia” – are spore-producing devices. Neither straight plant nor pure fungi, lichens are the result of a joint effort joining the two worlds. In this case the co-operation of an algae and a fungus creates an out-of-this-world look that is very much of part this world.

As if to invoke a previous season, clusters of Mistletoe can be seen along the entire Kentucky/Tennessee route. These are parasitic plants which root into the fiber of large trees. Because they are evergreens they stand out in the stark leafless world of the early spring treetops. Few sprouts are visible low to the ground and must be “picked” via a long lens. The fleshy sprouts and their winter berries are a Christmas favorite. Because this is not Christmas and we are trying to move on to the next season, I will quickly move on to more seasonal concerns.

A lone Hermit Thrush hung around long enough to allow its portrait. Unlike the Mistletoe these reclusive birds rarely venture more than a dozen feet from the ground and restrict their feeding activity to the forest floor. Quite a few Hermit Thrushes overwinter in the north, so this one can’t necessarily be labeled a spring migrant but it could be and that’s enough for a winter-wearied soul. In a nice accident of historic timing, we were able to match this bird to an early portrait of the same species done by pioneering naturalist Mark Catesby in the early 18th century (see lower right). Original plates from his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas published between 1729 and 1747 were on display at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum. These are among the first published images of New World life for a hemisphere-wearied European population.


As part of another accident of place, we discovered that the Ijames Nature Center displays several unique and treasured specimens of wildlife now long gone from the scene. Their female Passenger Pigeon was a nice example but their pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was simply spectacular. One rarely sees specimens of this extinct bird (believed extinct by most sane folks). As a matter of fact when these birds were offered to the center by a local estate they came out of virtual obscurity. Their existence was unknown to the scientific community until quite recently. It was, therefore, both a treat and a trick to see them because they invoked dual feelings of wonder and sadness.


Quite the opposite of the rarity of the dead Ivory-bills and Passenger Pigeons, live Northern Mockingbirds were ever-present throughout the region. One bird paraded just outside our hotel window and split his time between the shrubbery and the road sign next door. In the bush it was easy to see the relationship of this bird to the Catbird. Atop a stop sign, its display of ample tail-hood marked it quite distinctive from any catbird you’ll ever see.

I will normally go through a decade of existence before seeing one of these southern birds in Michigan but down here they are as flies on a roadkill. They are a constant part of the soundscape as well – repeating all local bird calls as if on a recorder. It is no wonder that in the southern literature and song these birds are also everpresent – as in “to Kill a…” and “Momma’s gonna buy you a …”

Alas, the Mockingbirds will not follow us north to Michigan, but that Tennessee spring season should be here any minute now…any minute. The Easter Bunny, of course, was everywhere at once and miraculously the very same bunny I photographed at Ijams was simultaneously knocking at our door back in Michigan.

April 1, 2013

The Ground is Willing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:44 am

I was trying to think of some suitable phrases that would sum up the spring of 2013, but was having a difficult time without using some bad words. This is not a terribly cold example of the season, but when compared to last year it seems as if we are in the throws of an Ice Age.  We Michiganders are blissfully equipped with selective memories, however, and this keeps us going from year to year. Most of you will recall – if you really try – many years when the first week of April saw snow and hard frost. So, it is what it is and this is nothing more than a horribly average Spring. Let’s just take the artistic route and simply state that “the ground is willing but the season is weak.”  A few sunny days will snap everything into back into alignment just like a seasonal chiropractor.

A late winter/early spring nature walk in this style of year can be a challenging experience. Nature reserves her dramatic feats for the later season but the signs are there none-the-less. One must look at the details in order to appreciate that things are a-changing.

Aching to bust out of the house I embarked on a short local walk just to see what could be found. The day was chilly but the sun burst forth with bouts of tolerable warmth on several occasions. The landscape was still basically a winter one at first glance. One small Gray Dogwood shrub – part of a cluster of small trees in a prairie planting – sported multiple Praying Mantis egg cases. I never tire of looking at these amazing structures and this sight was unusual in that there were multiple egg clusters in one small area (perhaps the product of a single, and very fertile, mantis). A bit further down the trail there were a dozen ball galls in a small grouping of Goldenrods. Again, the presence of multiple galls on a single stem is unusual and given that at least two of the plants had double structures, it was worth a pause and a picture. Inside each of these balls a tiny gall wasp grub awaits their seasonal signal to emerge.

The wood edge revealed a small Hazelnut bush in a location I had passed many times before. Once the place is leafed out, this small nut-bearing shrub will be all but invisible (see beginning picture). On this day it advertised with dangling male catkins (flowers) suspended from select branches. They were not “open” yet but certainly on the cusp of doing so. The female flowers – tiny ruby red tufts – were not yet out, although these flowers are difficult to see even when they are out. No doubt I will forget the Hazelnut’s location when I’m seeking the rich-flavored nuts this autumn. That short-term Michigan memory will allow me to re-discover this plant next spring and for many springs to come.

A mat of spaghetti draped over a Dogwood bush was another “winter” scene highlighted on this spring day. The explosion of pasta, contrasting with the red twigs, looked like the wiring inside of a phone junction box. This spaghetti matte was actually a cluster of Creeping, or Swamp, Dodder vines– a leafless parasitic plant that derives all its needs from a host plant. Dodders are rooted in the wood of their hosts. In this case the red branches of the dogwood were the unwilling hosts to the pale yellow vines of the Dodder. It is not hard to imagine why “Witches hair” is the common name for this plant (assuming, of course, all witches are blond…).

The reluctant day finally yielded some true spring animal life in the form of some obscure low-flying insects. They were on the sunny side of the path and appeared to be of two different makes. Most were completely, non-iridescent, black and these were the most active of the bunch. The other was also black but had a bright orange-red thorax with a pumpkin face on it. The true meaning of the difference became apparent when one of the all-black individuals made a move on the pumpkin-thoraxed one. The two tussled for a short while before the colorful one kicked the other one off. In other words we had a male/female pair – or, as in this case, a non-pair in which the non-blond one rejected the small dark stranger.

I didn’t know it at the time, but later research showed these animated creatures to be Sawflies. Prior to my seeing them they would have been “I will see” flies, but after the fact they could be declared as “saw flies”. I will not declare them as such because the name comes from the saw-like egg-laying structure found on the female – a device which she uses to cut a slit into leaves for depositing her eggs – and not from any grammatical reference (as in “I was trying to be funny”).

This particular species is without a good common name. It is technically called Dolerus unicolor. I am not smart enough to tell you what Dolerus means but unicolor refers to the single (uni), all black, color of the males. Unfortunately this makes no sense in reference to the female since she is definitely bi-colored. Before we get all tied up into a feminist knot let’s remember that the males were described as a species long before it was realized that the females were so different. She was required to take on the family name, so to speak.

Uni-colored Sawflies are among the earliest of the sawflies to emerge in the spring – having spent the winter underground as a pupa. It is only at this early stage of the season that I would have found it necessary to spend so much time with a tiny, poorly-named creature as the all-black-but-not-always- seen-saw-fly. Soon there will be lots to talk about after spring has become sprung.

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