Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 28, 2013

Grazing on the Spatterdock Plains

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:29 am

Like herds of tiny bison wandering across a floating plain, thousands of slow moving creatures shuffle their way across the nearly continuous surface of Spatterdock leaves.  From their perspective among the lily leaves the towering flower heads loom like multiple Seattle Space Needles. Perhaps one of the most common critters of Dollar Lake, Water Lily Plant Hoppers make up in numbers what they lack in size or visual appeal.  This is not to say that they are boring, but let’s just say they are easily overlooked. There are some 17 species of this type of insect but we’ll have to be generic about this beast – they are Lily leaf Plant Hoppers.

Their existence is confined to the upper surface of the floating leaves and at times they number in the hundreds per Spatterdock and White Water Lily leaf. Like their giant cousins the Cicadas, these insects treat their host plants as giant box drinks – piercing and siphoning off the fluids with a needle-like mouth.  Unlike cicadas they are soft-skinned, flightless, and colonial. I would take it a step further and say that they are silent as well, but since scientists have recorded some land-dwelling hoppers making micro “love” calls I can’t attest to the muteness of these aquatic hoppers. Living on a crowded space as they do, their communication probably consists of “hey you, watch where you’re going” or frequently exchanged barbs such as “oh yeah, your mother is nothing but a plant-sucking Hemipteran.”  “Yeah, same goes for you…you short-winged son of a Spatterdock!”

Life in a Lily Hopper colony is a pretty tame affair. Since they live on top of their next meal there is no need to actually seek nutrients. They eat, grow, shuffle and then eat some more. Oh, they shed on occasion also, but do not do so all at the same time since the members of the group are in a different phases of the growth cycle. Small windrows of variously sized skin casings accumulate on the leaf between rain showers and at times it appears as if there are twice as many hoppers as there really are (all are standing beside their former selves).

A buffering layer of lily pads extending out into the deeper water shields the dockside colonies from the daily effect of mild wind and waves. Higher winds and pelting rains often flip the leaves over and dump the top-side hoppers into the drink.  Light airy critters that they are, they can walk across the water surface to seek a tighter shelter.  A regular army of visitors land among them – Flower Flies, dusted with Spatterdock pollen (or is it spattered with spatterdock pollen?), leaf-eating beetles, and aquatic China-mark caterpillars that crawl over the dry surface on occasion. Water Striders are probably the biggest threat to hopper life.

As the Plant hoppers treat their leaves, so too the Water Striders treat soft juicy creatures such as plant hoppers. Fortunately, they seem to prefer other prey such as small flies or the random air insect that falls to the water surface, but the ever-present hoppers serve as the liver in the fridge (there when nothing else is available).

Striders glide around the pads and often pull up on the surface to rest.  For them, as it is for the hoppers, the leaf and water form one continual surface. They are aquatic but would drown if trapped beneath the meniscus layer.  This time of year many of the striders are adorned with fat red mite larvae. The mites cluster around the head end and give the poor water striders the appearance of someone driving after all the air bags have gone off. Scientists classify them as ectoparasites because they mooch off their host without harming them or entering their innards.  The pesky mites will drop off when mature and finish their life cycle under the water and the striders will rejoice in shedding their acne.

As for the Hoppers, they will continue their pad existence throughout the summer into fall (overwintering, I suspect, as eggs). It is a good life punctuated only by occasional strider grief or the discomfort of wind and waves.  The Spatterdock Plains are a micro world of plenty and small drama.

June 22, 2013

Tiny Titmice

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:47 pm

Their introduction to the outside world was not on the best of terms. It was raining cats and dogs when my local family of Tufted Titmouses revealed their presence in the front yard.  The tiny grey nestlings must have just scrambled out of their nest cavity on the morning I spotted them and the bunch looked to be wet and miserable.

Now, for the record, I’m not sure how to refer to a grouping of Tufted Mouses. Frankly, Titmouses sounds awkward but Titmousii or Teats sounds even worse so I’ll just say Titmice. The brood of tiny titmice was spread across the front yard between the crabapple and a large Red maple. The parents were actively feeding all of them and the place was a hub of activity for several days running. Each of the young birds (perhaps four or five) were uttering continuous “chup-chup” calls and it was all the adults could do to keep up with their constant pleas for food.

Adult Titmice are Chickadee-sized birds with plain gray backing, white breast with rusty flanks, large black eyes, and a name-earning crest atop their noggin. They are common feeder birds throughout the year and their loud “Tee-boo tee-boo tee-boo” calls are a regular part of our landscape. Because they are little gray cavity nesters, however, their nest sites are very difficult to locate. Titmice don’t (or won’t) excavate their own cavities and rely on abandoned woodpecker holes for their brood raising needs. In short, this is to say that I had no idea that my local Titmice were in a family way until their loud brood of nestlings erupted onto the scene. The nest must have been very close indeed.

Wet drippy little titmice do not make for a pretty picture. The birdlets made no attempt to get out of the rain either. Perhaps, being newly out, they thought it normal. Only one of them found a decent sheltered perch on one of the maple limbs. The others bumbled their way from the car roof, to an upside-down position on a Cedar branch, a wagon wheel spoke, and the split rail fence. They were noisily announcing and exposing themselves – afforded protection only by the rain.

The downpour didn’t hinder a Blue Jay from performing an assassination attempt. The Blue bomber swooped down on one tit-chick as it assumed a Capt. Morgan stance on the top of the old scythe handle leaning against the cedar rail.  The nestling appeared shocked after the first attempt and downright indignant when the Jay returned for a rear-assault.  All baby birds look indignant but this one definitely looked miffed. I barely had time to snap a shot as the Blue Jay grabbed some of the tail feathers and gave the nestling a mighty jerk. In the photo it came off as a blurry ghost with a neck bib.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I was looking forward to witnessing the actual assassination. It is something that you read about but rarely witness – something that event the mainline nature shows tend to cut since people don’t like seeing baby birds die. It is a fact that most of them are plucked, picked, gobbled, or otherwise converted into predator scat before reaching adulthood.

Alas, the Blue Jay gave up her efforts and I was left with a live wet baby bird in front of me.  I did feel cheated when a few days later I found one of the Titmice chicks dead at the base of one of the Maple trees and could only blame the act on a Blue Jay (as much as I would have liked to pin it on one of the marauding local cats).

The parent Titmice fed their charges with a variety of insects and, what appeared to be, a few seeds. They literally shoved the food directly into the young bird’s throat. One especially large chunk of seed (perhaps a peanut fragment) was inserted and pulled several times before the nestling finally downed it.

 

Between feedings the nestlings cat-napped or drifted into un-easy bouts of sleep. The parents only found their well-deserved respite at sun down when the babies finally closed their over-sized yaps and took time to contemplate their uncertain futures. Nearly 80% will not have a future so it is best we enjoy them in their present.

 

June 15, 2013

Da Big Skink

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:31 pm

Last year, you may recall that I brought you news of a fine family of Five-lined Skinks living about the property near Dollar Lake.  The crew- perhaps a half dozen in all – were all young’ns based on their bright blue tails. I won’t re-pave old road by telling you the whole story but young skinks possess electric blue tails which lure predators into grabbing their non-fatal end if attacked. The tail breaks off and the lizard escapes. This leaves the attacker with a wiggling piece of tail meat. It is a great trick (especially given the fact that the tail can be re-grown).

I do wonder if one could survive on a diet of skink tails – they would be a harvestable resource and probably a good feed if cooked with butter. Do skink tails dance when heated in a fry pan? Could skink farming be part of a future food wave? Will Skink Snacks ever make the supermarket shelves? Just a thought, sorry I can’t stop myself from expressing such things. Anyway, back to the main subject.

 

Like smoke to fire, young skinks imply the presence of older skinks No mature skinks were ever spotted last year, however.  I presume that baby skinks are far less cautious than the adult ones (as is the case with all baby critters and thus the reason most baby critters do not grow up).

This spring was different in that I finally happened upon one of the ‘da big skinks down by the lake. It was, in fact, a big daddy skink sunning itself on a Cedar tree next to a cavity in the trunk. The creature was reluctant to leave the warmth of the sun and did little in the way of movement as I watched it – although it did briefly duck back into the cavity at my approach. Given that this is supposed to be an educational blog, as opposed to a “what I did and how I feel” blog, I should endeavor to point out some of the details that marked this lizard as an adult and a male. The adults look completely different from their young.

Firstly, the age of this lizard was easy to call because, apart from the larger size (approx. 7 inches), it lacked clear striping. As they approach adulthood, Five-lined Skinks devolve into no-line skinks. Their bright striping décor fades as the background color changes from deep blue-black to pale yellow-brown.  The blue tail of infancy pales to gray. Folks are not quite sure why this occurs since the tail remains detachable. It could be assumed that big skinks are accomplished predator avoiders by the time they ripen and the blue-tail thing becomes an un-necessary (and slightly embarrassing) mark of immaturity.

During the spring breeding season the males attain a reddish cast to their heads and cheeks. This feature is a distinctively masculine trait meant to attract the “ladies.” Unfortunately, to the human observer it looks like a lizard with an infected head or one that has been wacked repeatedly against a tree limb. It looks somewhat painful but is eye-catching. The females never get reddish heads.

Females lay their clutch of 15-18 eggs in wood debris or in tree cavities. There might be some possibility that the Cedar cavity might also serve as a nesting hole but because the males do not participate in brooding the association would be purely accidental.  We’ll see if a cluster of blue-tailed babies pour out of this hole later in the year.

My sunning male skink remained relatively immobile over the course of ten minutes and I eventually moved on to watch some drying paint. It was gone by the time I returned and has not been seen since. The summer is young and I am reasonably sure that it will be giving me the skink eye from the shadows for the balance of the season.

June 8, 2013

Nest in a Nutshell

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:42 pm

It is near impossible to spot a hummingbird nest in the wild. So it was a fortunate mix of timing and placement when I spotted a female Ruby-throated hummer flying up to a maple branch suspended near our porch at Dollar Lake. The tiny bird perched near an equally tiny bump on the branch. This spot proved to be her nest construction site and I was provided a front row seat for the ensuing process – and quite a process it was.

In all, the entire effort took well over seven days and I was present for at least three of them. Considering that the final structure was only about the size of a walnut (or about the circumference of a dollar coin), this betrays the complexity of the construction and the sheer determination of the builder.  This female chose a typical location on an overhanging branch, about 15 feet from the ground with ample open space beneath. Her chosen spot was at a point where the branch bent downward and a few over-arching leaves provided some overhead protection.

An average day began at sunrise and consisted of repeated forays for nesting material until around 8:00 p.m. (at which point she would retreat to some unknown roosting site). Arriving at the nest, she would insert/weave/ apply her chosen material and perform some variety of wiggle dance. Her dance steps depended on the material. For instance, upon arriving with a clump of Aspen down this material was placed into the center and packed down with a series of foot tamps accompanied by a metronome-like rocking action. Spider silk was applied while sitting in the cup, reaching over the edge, and applying the strands around the outside perimeter. Lichen bits were individually placed and secured into the silk with a few pokes.

 

In all, the Hummer spent little more than a minute at the nest and anywhere from 2 – 15 minutes on her gathering missions. Longer absences were probably used for food gathering at the local Columbines.

Each forage trip sent her in a totally different direction from the previous foray, although she tended to repeat forage themes. A trip to gather spider webs was followed by a few more with the same material in mind – but never the same web location twice. On one venture she investigated all the webs on the cabin porch just a few feet from where I was sitting. Hovering inches away from a web spanning the space between the vertical rails, she darted in to snatch a few strands at a time. She then directed her attention to the cobweb in the upper corner of the window before returning her silken findings to the construction site.

The silk was laid on with a back-and-forth wiping action of the beak. Application of the spider silk was aided by flicks of the long tongue to pull the threads into place. This latter action would have gone un-detected without the stop-action record provided by the camera.

The silk endeavors were followed by a bout of lichen picking in which she plucked small bits off of bare tree limbs and trunks. Tufts of cat-tail down were pulled off of the winter worn heads lingering atop the old stalks down by the lakeshore.  Aspen down – flying through the air and drifting on the ground like January flurries – were also added in liberal amounts to the soft central core.

 

By the end of the first few days of activity, her nest was mostly a light-colored mass of silk and fiber with a few darker lichens for effect. Upon my return a full week later, I found her nest to be thoroughly adorned with a layer of cryptic blue-green lichens. The nest blended perfectly with its host  branch both in color and contour. She was sitting in the nest at that point – perhaps even on eggs- but it was not yet “complete” in her mind. Once or twice every hour she would venture off the clutch to gather up yet another bit of lichen or tuft of down for that final touch. On the following day, she looked to be really done (as in really truly done) and did not attempt to add anything else to her miraculous little structure.

After 14 or so days of incubation and relative inactivity, her charges will hatch and she will resume her frantic pace while feeding her micro family. This, like her act of nest construction, she will do without any assistance from the male what-so-ever.  A hummingbird’s work is never done.

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