Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 31, 2013

Digging in a Sand Box: Truffles and a Turd

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:42 am

Not every experience with the dig team at the Adams farm is worth in-depth reporting. All of it is fascinating for the participant but because the pace of archaeology is slow by nature – measuring, re-measuring, charting, and then more measuring – “events” are few and far between. Yesterday the pace was interrupted by a few definitively non archaeological events and a fascinating sideshow.

Our team was working in the woods under the comforting shade of a stately oak tree. We uncovered a thousand year old scatter of Woodland pottery and a small symmetrical fire pit. The pottery consisted of finely cord-marked body sherds evenly distributed over a single layer. Even though they appeared to be the remains of a single shattered pot, they represented a number of vessels (thus deflating our dreams of assembling the mass into one single museum quality piece).  The fire pit, shaped like a deep cereal bowl, contained a scatter of charcoal, a nut shell, a few chunks of pottery, and a nice flint flake. Under Dr. Mohney’s direction we bagged the remaining soil from the feature into a gallon sized ziplock labeled “FLOAT”. This soil will be subjected to a flotation procedure where water is used to separate tiny pieces of organic material.

One of the class members brought along her family’s collection of points for Dr. Mohney to examine. Among the dozens of projectile points laid out on the truck hood was a gem – not a mineralogical gem but an archaeological gem.  A rare Fluted point – a thin masterpiece made of dark mottled flint – represents the first period of human occupation in the Great Lakes some 10-12,000 years ago (they are the oldest points found in the New World). Thinning flakes, taken out of the point’s base, are the fluting features which probably aided in attaching these projectile points to an atlatl spear shaft.

 

Although we can’t completely rule out the possibility, we don’t expect to find a fluted point at this site but…..  Once, an especially vindictive archaeologist snuck one of these (a replica, of course) into a sifting screen and then proceeded to chew out a lazy student for not noticing it. Cruel, but funny. I took several pictures of the above-mentioned fluted point (see above) if only to document it and insure that if it shows up in our screen we will be able to identify it!

Something odd did show up in one of the screens during the dig. It wasn’t a fake point but instead a bumpy yellowish item which broke up into several smaller, though sizable, pieces. We gathered round and unfortunately I was asked what it might be. After looking it over, touching it, and smelling a broken portion my little grey cells tentatively declared it a Truffle (see below and here). Never having seen a truffle before (or knowing whether they are even found this side of the pond), I was on thin ice and wished for a pig to wander by to provide some confirmation.

Fortunately my suspicion turned out and my pseudo-intelligence streak continued.  Truffles are underground fungi in which the fruiting body has no stem and the spore bearing surfaces are encased. They grow in a freeform style. There are many species of Truffles in the world and the black French variety can command thousands of dollars per pound (one 3 ½ pound example sold for $330,000). Most other varieties are not nearly that precious and many aren’t even that tasty.  Mine was probably a White Truffle.

Another mystery item turned up in yet another screen that elicited another “what is it?” call out. Before I reveal the final answer let me just say that a red herring was involved in this affair. A crayfish was uncovered along with the same shovelful that brought up this lump of somethingness. “Yes,” the students working that square, “that crayfish was in with that weird green stuff.”  I, assuming that the crayfish was of the burrowing variety, also assumed that the “weird green stuff” was associated with his now destroyed burrow. That was the red herring aspect: if it was a crayfish it must have been in a burrow at the time.

I probed and poked at the greenish blob which looked like, and had the texture of, a blob of bleached avocado paste that had been rolled in the sand. There were a few fragments of green leaves mixed in. It definitely did not smell of avocado, however. It was musty with strong hints of poopiness but this seemed natural if it was accumulated crayfish poop. That was my first diagnosis: crayfish poop accumulated in a crayfish burrow.

How wrong I was. It took a while before I finally put two and two together and came up with five (which is the number of minutes I wanted to scrub my hands with industrial disinfectant after coming to this realization). The crayfish was a burrowing crayfish alright but the avocado paste was actually cat poop.

At some time over the weekend a cat, with a bad case of the runs, came along and used the nice sandy archaeological pit for his potty. Our crayfish was probably bumbling along later that night, fell into the partially excavated pit and, discovering that he could not escape, resorted to eating the blob of deliciousness as prison food (Hey, this stuff tastes like sh..).

The crayfish and his meal came up in one of the first shovelfuls of the day and prompted several minutes of fingering, sniffing, and photo taking. I later examined one of my detailed documentary shots of the mystery blob and it clearly shows that the thing has dozens of long hairs sticking to it. I did not see those when I was handling it.

I have spent the last 24 hours washing my hands and trying to recall if the students operating that particular crayfish pit showed any signs of giggling or snickering eye contact during the course of my fecal examination.

Like life, an archaeological screen can turn up a truffle, a treasure, or a turd depending on any given day.

May 24, 2013

Digging in a Sandbox

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:53 am

A class, under the direction of Anthropology Professor Dr. Kenneth Mohney, is participating in what might be considered the best field course ever. They are students from Monroe Co. Community College and, thanks to the Adams family of Temperance, they have the opportunity to dig an actual site. This is the kind of hands-on stuff that trumps book learning any day. Of course you need the book learning in order to perform the field work properly, but there is nothing like getting your hands dirty to drive a point home.

It was through the prompting of a friend that I became involved in this dig as a volunteer. I say that  I’m “helping out”  but there is some guilt because I probably get more out of it than actually contributed. So far the urge to squeal like a small child at some of the discoveries has been avoided, but the season is young.

The dig season just began last week and will continue through late June, so there will be more to report in the future (and more incidents of squeal suppression, I am sure). For now I can summarize some initial findings and lay out some background. Normally the background stuff is not especially compelling, but in this case it is crucial to the whole thing. It was the gracious invitation of the Adams’ to open their property to the project. On the land since the 1830’s, the family has long held in interest in their own history as well as the prehistoric past. Both Craig and his father Don are regulars at the dig site – peering in with excitement as the layers of soil are uncovered.  Last year Craig put on a big cook out for the crew at the end of operations.

Don, a youthful man of 83 and quite a scholar in his own right, is able to point out which areas have been previously plowed and which have not (important info. for archaeologists). He pointed to the row of stately Red Pines that border the site and recalled when they planted them some seven decades earlier. Craig brought out a small paper bag and proudly revealed its contents. It contained carefully wrapped examples of “arrowheads” picked from the ground over the years. This humble, yet significant, collection tells a 10,000 year story of occupation.

Only one of the items was a true arrowhead. The rest represented spear points, dart points, and knives – or in the parlance of archaeology: “projectile points.” Included in the collection was a sizable pile of flint flakes – left-overs from the manufacture of stone points. There are hundreds of flakes cast off during the process of making one piece and each can tell a tale if asked. For instance, the black flakes represent a flint source called Upper Mercer in Ohio, while the dirty white ones represent local material from Stony Creek. One large shiny flake – an edible looking shade of caramel – is likely from a location on Lake Huron called Kettle Point.  All this flint reached this location through trade networks.

Among the more complete artifacts (see below), a pair of black Mercer flint spear heads hail from the Early Archaic period and date to around 8-9,000 years ago. Two square based points are of the style popular in the late Archaic around 3,000 years ago and the only arrowhead of the bunch, a triangular thing, is the baby of the bunch at around  1,000 years of age.   A large knife, made of marbled Ohio flint, had an edge that still could slice through sinew or leather.

Early Archaic Point

Late Archaic Point

Woodland Period Arrow Point

The promise of the dig is to uncover the background history that goes with these artifacts. More flakes and a partial projectile point have been found. To date, a few post-hole molds have been discovered which indicate that at one time a wigwam type structure might have been in place.

Late Woodland Pottery (ca. 1,200 years ago) comes up in nearly every square. The pieces range from small to tiny but reveal details of a decoration style known as cord marking. A small paddle, wrapped in a basswood twine, was used to pat the exterior of the pot as it was being formed from moist clay. These marks are distinctive. The pots of the period were often massive in size but there is no hope of gluing all these un-matched pieces together anytime soon.

Woodland Period Pottery (and a few flint flakes)

My naturalist instincts are continually called into play as the dig uncovers various soil insects – of very recent vintage I might add. One especially interesting find (see below) was a soil cocoon of some small species of moth – possibly a cutworm?  Last fall a caterpillar dug into the sandy soil and excavated an earthen chamber about the size of a grape and lined it with silk. There it pupated and awaited the rising soil temperature as a signal to emerge as an adult. Instead, the archaeologists trowel prematurely opened the door. The shiny chestnut brown pupae wiggled in protest as I placed it back in some undisturbed soil.

It is expected that the place will be forced to tell many more historical secrets before the month and the dig proceeds. There is a local story about some gold hidden somewhere on the property – prompted by a shiny cast coin found many years ago by Craig Adams. He pointed to the exact spot located only steps away from one of the open pits. I will return, if still welcomed, to find the true riches of the site  in the form of broken pottery, fragmented flint, and soil stains.

May 18, 2013

Bubko lum tsee

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:17 pm

“A cowbird need keep a sharp eye, for the threat of a falling cow pie”

Cowbirds are universally hated by bird enthusiasts and their name is usually enunciated with a sneer – along with a few unprintable prefixes. Granted, their negative reputation is deserved. As nest parasites they are responsible for pushing some songbird populations into the red zone. Depending on whom you talk to, or read from, these birds successfully parasitize some 140 plus species and their activities have the potential to push some, such as the Kirtland’s Warbler, over the brink. Their badness stems from their goodness, however. They are very good at the bad thing they do and we – as a species – are partially to blame.

Up until about 200 years ago, Brown-headed Cowbirds were content to follow the roaming herds of Bison over the Great Plains. They fed upon the insects kicked up by the stomping hooves and those attracted to their steaming piles of poo. As the eastern lands were cleared by European settlement and populated with bison-like herds of cattle, the birds spread east of the Mississippi. In other words we created ideal cowbird habitats across the landscape and the birds accepted our un-intended invitation. In their new stomping grounds these blackbirds are bad news because they are victimizing woodland birds unaccustomed to deal with this behavior.

Now that I’ve got all this sordid history out of the way, we can now look at these foul little fowl without guilt. Yes they are “bad” and yes it would be nice to push them back across the mighty Miss, but that ain’t going to happen anytime soon. So, let me be the first to say these G… D… Cowbirds are entertaining little creatures to watch. Springtime is the best time.

On a bright sunny morning along the Lake Huron shore my attention was drawn to a cluster of Cowbirds engaged in courtship. A group of three males were in display mode in the lofty upper branches of a dead tree while two females engaged in their own up-frontery on a lower limb. The males were not displaying to the females but to each other.

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds are easy to identify (see above). They are small, slightly glossy, black birds with brown heads. One way to remember this is to remember this ditty “To paint the head of a cowbird, you must start with the color of cow turd.”  The females are about as plain as you can get – in fact, the color of dried cow patties (if we are to keep this thing within proper scatological imagery).

 

The first step of cowbird courtship etiquette is to clear the room of competing suitors and my Lake Huron cluster was in full performance mode. The three males alternated between bouts of “bill pointing” and “toppling forward bows.” These two behaviors are meant to establish a dominance system within the brotherhood. Heads up and bills pointing heaven-ward the three attempted to look as thin and tall as possible. Then, one by one, they puffed up into a ridiculous ball and fell forward to the point of nearly falling off the limb. This display was accompanied by a bubbly gurgle that has been described as “bubko lum tsee.” The “bubko” part is liquidy and soft while the “tsee” portion is higher pitched.

The females were also bill pointing much of this time. As a rule, the gals do not get into the toppling thing instead they satisfy themselves by calling each other words that rhyme with ditch and more.

After about 15 minutes the cowbirds flew away, but all in the same direction. At some point in time all this bubbling and tipping will result in a clear definition of which males can pair up with which females. The males will turn this same toppling bow behavior toward impressing their females. Brown-headed cowbirds are basically monogamous and once a pair of birds hook up (as in “hey baby I like the way you topple”) they pretty much stay together for the balance of the season. Their orphan offspring will be individually raised by the likes of Yellow Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, and Vireos but they will be genuine little brown-headed bastards with cow poop in their veins and a bubko lum tsee in their hearts.

May 12, 2013

An Oval Canvas

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 am

In common things considered we often can find some inspiration. Recently I was reciting the first line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” to a 2nd grade class as an example of simple poetry. While they were thinking on the level of “Roses are red, violets are blue, rotten meat stinks and so do you” I sought to inspire them with “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” The immediate response bursting from the kid in the front row was an incredulous, and rather loud, “what the heck does that mean!”

Second graders do not varnish their thoughts – they allow them to erupt like fountains from their boiling kettle of brains. I was forced to explain how each tree has a story to tell in its twisting branches, gnarly bark and patterned leaves and that story is like a poem. They grunted some form of understanding and proceeded to write their “roses are red” poems anyway. This experience forced me, however, into thinking about other simple things and how they are complicated in their simplicity. Take eggs for example.

I will use the example offered by two random eggs offered up to me this Spring. The first was laid upon a bed of green moss at the base of one of my Maple trees. I noticed a robin sitting at an odd angle with her tail up against the trunk. She flushed at my approach and left a fresh, still very warm, egg sitting on the ground. I’m thinking that perhaps she meant to pass gas and accidently pushed out an egg instead. This happens, you know. The second example was a Red-winged Blackbird egg found floating in the water at the edge of a marsh. It could have been knocked out of the nest or plunked into the drink as the result of another avian gas attack. I thought “what the heck?” as I picked them up. Both are sublimely common and ordinary things yet poetic in their simplicity.

The intensity of color in my robin egg caught my eye anew. Everyone knows that robin’s eggs are blue, but it needs describing. For Tiffany & Co., their robin egg blue is officially described as Color 1837 and on the universal Pantone Color system it is close to shade No. 319. It is greenish blue as opposed to bluish green – neither royal, cerulean, nor sky. It is a perfect shade laid upon a perfect shape.

Although the background of the Red-winged Blackbird is also blue, the shade is much lighter and closer to Pantone No. 317 (Cornflower?). While the robin makes its impression by pure strength of shade, the Red-wing blows the mind with pattern. Thoroughly emblazoned with bold dark brown calligraphic squiggles on the surface, the shell exhibits several layers of décor like mysterious ancient cyphers over-written by newer scribes. While all robin eggs are virtually identical, no two Red-wing eggs are alike. Each is an original work of art.

Consider that all bird eggs are un-colored before they are laid. The pigment is applied to the outer part of the shell as the egg journeys down the oviduct and presses against glands located in the wall. Dark pigments are applied in a pattern determined by the twists and turns of the egg – like a mobile canvas being passed back and forth over a stationary Sharpie marker.  Spots are created where the egg’s journey is paused and squiggles result when it moves.  In other words, the journey of an egg from inner bird to outer nest is not a simple process. It is factory line of brushes, sprays, conveyor belts and tiny manipulating robots.

The squiggles on the Red-winged Blackbird egg are especially fascinating. With a little imagination one can discern a rabbit-headed snake, a long-tailed forest bird, a colonial style letter “G”, a perfect comma, and a crossed out line from a long lost hand-written Mark Twain manuscript.

There are some practical reasons for these shell designs – mostly based on camouflage and identity – but scientists have yet to fully explain the complexities of this simplicity.

It’s a shame that hatching baby birds have to enter the world as vandals by destroying all this shell poetry.

May 9, 2013

Meet Mr. Brown

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:23 pm

For those of you who are afraid of snakes I suggest the little Brown Snake as the perfect antidote. Oops, probably shouldn’t use the word antidote here – it could conjure thoughts of getting bit and dying in the car while on the way to get said antidote from the nearest hospital 50 miles away. So, let’s just say that Browns are perfect snake ambassadors.  It would’nt be correct to say they would not hurt a fly but it would be fair to say they are quite harmless towards humans. They can be fearless and even borderline cute (if we need to get all feminine about this).

There is a very good chance that you could go through your entire life and never encounter a Brown Snake.  This is not due to rarity or nocturnal habits, but due to their smallness (about the size of hefty night crawlers), shyness, and browness. They blend into their earthy background both in color and habit. A single cream stripe down the back and two dark brown cheek spots are the only real décor on this well named snake. Because they feed on earthworms and slugs they spend most of their time crawling beneath the leaf litter. In short they are hard to see even when seen.

I nearly stepped on one while walking the brown dirt dike road at Pointe Mouillee. This individual was soaking up the rays of the morning sun and was so engrossed in sun worship that it did not even flinch as I performed an awkward avoidance step. It appeared as a blade of grass on the path. My typical tactic in such cases would be to pick the thing up and provide you a few “in-hand” shots but I opted to leave the critter in place on this occasion. I, instead, came down to his level.

I often tell my “students” (those who either want to or have to listen to me) that about the only way to judge a snake’s emotion is by counting the tongue flicks. Because snakes can’t blink or exhibit “squishy puppy eyes” it is hard to tell exactly what they are thinking at any given time. Many folks believe that all snakes are thinking about killing people all the time and therefore such a judgment is un-necessary. I will not respond to such foolishness as exhibited by some people all the time. No, snakes will typically flick their tongues out more frequently when they are curious or worried – whenever more information is needed. A slow flicking snake is a bored or extremely cold snake. A non flicking snake is either sleeping or dead.

The tongue provides an extra smell sensing device. By capturing tiny particles of dandruff in the air and rubbing the tongue surface across a detector (called a Jacobson’s Organ) in the roof of the mouth, the individual is able to determine what is before it – foe, friend, or food.

My Brown Snake started to flick its tongue with great energy when I put the camera lens down to his level. Rather than attempt escape, he became extremely curious and actually approached the camera. I keep moving it back and the Brownie followed until touching the lens and eventually crawling under it.  You’ll note in the video sequence that typically the forked tongue was whipped out and flailed in both an upward direction and downward manner so as to “lick the air.”  In case you are wondering, this pointed appendage is soft to the touch and is difficult to feel even when it makes contact with your hand.

This friendly little fellow was only doing what any curious puppy would do. When puppies crowd the video lens we all post the images on You Tube. An equivalent snake video would probably be labeled “Snake Attack” or something. I am merely posting my inquisitive Brown Snake on this blog  to show that snakes can have legitimate personalities. My ultimate motive is to allow some of you (you know who you are) to touch the screen and see how harmless this particular snake really is (the result would have been identical should you touched him for real).

 

May 2, 2013

You Can’t See Me

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:52 pm

Depending on the time of day or season, I would be the first to say that Canada Geese are not worthy of any attention or worthy of only negative attention. On some days, in fact, I am tempted to take on the persona of a Sith emperor and declare “kill them…kill them all.”  As a Jedi, however, I must admit that even these geese have a right to live – they are native birds, after all. “Kill some of them…kill some of them some of the time” might be a more responsible mantra.  And yes, they are worthy of some positive attention – especially as it relates to behavior.

This is the height of the breeding season for Canada Geese and the local marshes resound with a cacophony of honking and flapping. Theirs nests are everywhere and the goslings are now hatching out by the droves. Muskrat lodges are perhaps the most common nesting site in our region – the birds rearrange the material, add a few down feathers, and the females nestle in for their month-long incubation period. When so engaged, the momma geese are very reluctant to leave. Upon the approach of danger (in the form of a Sith emperor or a middle aged Jedi, for instance) the birds instinctively reduce their profile by extending their neck out and down. They literally hug the surface and will remain in this pose until the threat passes. The body remains motionless but they track the potential predator with their head as they pass.

Non-incubating individuals, away from their nest, will do this same “neck out and down” behavior even if they are out in the open or with their newly hatched goslings. The act seems fruitless, or even ridiculous, when the bird is hiding in plain sight. Why do they do it, then? Part of the answer is that they really can’t help it (or better to say that most can’t help it).

This posture appears to be a hard-wired behavior – an instinctive move meant to provide protection.  In the natural environment such a move usually works most of the time. These mottled brown birds blend in well with dead vegetation whether sitting atop it or swimming among it. The act of extending the neck and dropping the head hides the bright white chin strap. When in the water, the birds will lower their chin spot beneath surface. Instinct eliminates the need to think about details such as immediate surroundings. So what if you look stupid 50% of the time – it’s better than being dead 100% of the time.

Canada Geese normally use this facial marking as a means of communication and will boldly flash the spot using a series of head bobs and tosses. By hiding it they also convey a message to their young when the time comes. When mom does the head flip and then the drop chin, the kids know it’s time to gather close. This move is equivalent to mom using your middle name in conversation to convey the seriousness of the situation (“You will allow me to look stupid and you will appreciate it”).

There is another aspect of this behavior that complicates things. First of all, not all individuals do this – which begs the question how some can turn this off. I watched one pair of parents obediently perform their instinctive crouch (shown in these photos). Another pair, only a few feet away, did not do the crouch.  Oddly enough the two families joined together and confidently swam away from the scene with 22 goslings in tow (normal clutch size is 5 per pair). Perhaps the oddest thing is that the youngsters do not mimic this head down behavior for the most part. I once saw an entire family crouch down and freeze but that was in a situation where they were within a clump of concealing grasses. Of course, little geese are still at the ugly duckling stage and do not have a long neck and chin patch to employ or conceal. In most cases the goslings remained head up and alert. They clustered around mom and tried to look as fuzzy and defenseless as possible! Late in life, when they have a long neck and a nest of their own, they will do just as their parents did (and theirs is not to question why but to extend and to lie).

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