Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 31, 2013

Keeping One’s Nuts in a Row

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:46 am

I guess it’s about time to do another update on my Red Squirrels. I, of course, say “my” squirrels with the full knowledge that they are the actual owners of the yard and that my wife and I are the lowly residents within their space.  In the season following their destruction of my riding mower and trashing my shed, they have dedicated themselves towards the filling of every available container or hollow space with old walnut shells. They raised a disgustingly adorable crop of baby Reds in the front yard tree and now the place is brimming with semi-well behaved squirrels.

So as not to completely deny their mischievous nature, a few of them have taken upon themselves to repeatedly bite into the plastic table covering on our small outside setting (leaving dozens of paired rips). I have no doubt that they will eventually shred this thing, but for now – and I mean the immediate now of late August and the early fall season – they are totally, absolutely, un-erringly occupied by the walnut crop.  The table cloth and the mower can wait for another time.

There is a bounteous crop of walnuts hanging from the yard trees this season and the Reds are determined to harvest and consume every single one.  Since Red Squirrels are passionate about everything it is needless to say that they are passionate about this particular mission. These bi-colored dynamos eat all manner of food – both animal and vegetable (they do not actually eat plastic table cloths or lawn mower wiring). When conifers are available, pine and spruce cones are targeted. Mushrooms are always on the list, whenever and wherever found, and are harvested at every opportunity. Evidence recovered from around the yard revealed a few fragments of torn mushroom caps. I caught one of the younger ones nibbling on just such a fungal favorite (see below) the other day. But the stains around his little lips, as well as the abundant presence of gnawed shells scattered about, betray the species-defining love of walnuts.

Black Walnuts are covered with thick florescent green husks this time of year. The husk covering enlarges the diameter of some of the nut packages to something just shy of tennis ball size. The Reds spend a great deal of time cutting the nuts free from their lofty origins (see above) and watch them crash through the foliage down to the ground. The next step involves collecting these earthbound tennis balls and running to one of two favorite dining trees. Some nuts are stored under the hood of my mower or eaten outright, but most are placed in temporary storage.

The sight of a tiny Red Squirrel bounding across the lawn with a tennis ball – something larger than its head – is a ridiculous scene. Looking more like a cat toy, they are pulled to the intended location as if a magnet were implanted in the nut and the tree was metallic. Several of the lower horizontal branches on my Red Maples have odd scabby growths shaped very much like small wooden bowls. The squirrels use these as short-term nut holders. On any given day every available nut bowl contains a squirrel harvested nut.

One branch has several of these depressions in a row and, when fully loaded, looks as if one of the squirrels has arranged for a breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack nut.

After a prolonged session of nut harvesting, the Reds begin to chow down. Piece by piece they remove the husk and proceed to gnaw deeply into the nut (from two sides) to extract the meat. As most folks know, the green husk flesh quickly turns brown upon exposure to air and it will stain everything it touches. Every single Red Squirrel in my…er, their yard… is marked with a dark brown mouth ring. Like face paint on a stadium football fan this is the mark of a real nut!

August 24, 2013

That is the Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 am

Nature is often all about split second decisions. It is both efficient  and “smart” to look like something else without actually being that something else (take for example of the effectiveness of photo cardboard cut-out cops used to “patrol” some potential crime spots – no donuts required). Predators and prey usually only get glimpses of each other before making their move to grab or go. With that in mind, collective evolutionary trends dictate that appearances really do count and that it is o.k. to fake it as long as it improves survival odds. It is hard to tell what is real in nature.

Although there are examples of mimicry in every layer of the natural world, insects really have this gig perfected. Countless species of Insects mimic everything from harmless poo to venomous beasts and they do so from both sides of the fence, and often on both sides at once (what?).  I put before you two examples from the realms of my back yard – a fly and a moth that pretend to be bee-like. Thus the question “A bee or not a bee.”

The first faker comes in the form of a bumblebee. It is a hairy thing adorned in black and yellow and from a short distance looks very bumbly indeed. It is, of course, not a bee at all but a type of Robber Fly of the genus Laphria. A close look will reveal that the resemblance is only fleeting.

Robber Flies are robust predators that aggressively pursue, and suck dry, all manner of insects. They are the dragonflies of the fly world – perching in open sunny spots and flying out to grab passing prey. As a group they tend to be rather slender and this Bee-mimic Robber is much skinnier than your average (healthy) bumblebee. Flies only have one pair of wings while bumblebees have two pair. The imitation sports short spikey antennae as opposed to the bent appendages of the real bee. The face is long and mustached and the facial fuzz covers up the deep divide between the two huge compound eyes (bumbles have rounded heads).

It is also worth noting the large pad-equipped feet with large hooked claws on the Robber fly in question. This is a decidedly un-bumblelike trait that the fly uses to secure prey.

The benefit incurred by being a bee imposter is that it might deter other predators from tackling what they perceive as a sting- laden beast. This is the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” scenario. Because the Bee mimic Robber Fly is a wolf, however, it also probably benefits from the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” scenario as well.  The extensive prey list of this fly includes a hefty dose of real bees and bumblebees. There is the possibility that looking like a bumble helps this predator get closer to its intended prey. “Hey,” the surprised bumblebee screamed in horror, “you’re an imposter, you, you… (end of conversation punctuated by sucking sounds).

The second mimicking insect I will present comes from the moth world (see below and here). It is a stem borer that comes from a group of moths known as the Wasp Moths.  These guys employ slender partially transparent wings, long slender abdomens and enhanced yellow antennae.  They even fly about in the bright sun of daytime (there would be no need for such a cover if it retained nocturnal habits.) Over all this dark species is mimicking a metallic black paper wasp. Not exactly an academy award winning performance but enough to warrant a role as a character player.

The Wasp mimic Borer is strictly in the realm of “sheep in wolf’s clothing” mode. As a nectar feeder it seeks flowers and cannot defend itself. By looking like a wasp, it is given a degree of protection by signaling “I’m packing a powerful sting.”

Of course, this threat would not deter a Bee-mimicking Robber Fly one wit. So, even though I was not witness to such a meeting, it is very likely that these two cross-dressing insects met and that the fake bee won out over the fake wasp. Real life can be a grand illusion.

August 17, 2013

Little Green Contortionist

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:26 pm

My usual relationship with Green Herons can be categorized into two types: fleeting glimpses as the bird flushes out of the cattails or distant glimpses as it squawks overhead during the breeding season. These little herons are secretive and cautious creatures.  Needless to say, this limits one to remote observation. The Green tends to spend a whole lot of time doing nothing between those bouts of fleeing and squawk flying because they are stealth hunters. Watching one through a pair of binoculars can be like watching corn grow because they play statue all the time.

Recently I was able to approach a Green Heron and actually watch it do something other than the above described behavior.  The bird was in a heavily used public park (Elizabeth Park in Trenton) and obviously desensitized to human presence. We were together in the full sunlight of late afternoon and the observee was well aware of the observer.

Yes, it did play extended bouts of statue.  In typical Green Heron style the bird selected a low Black Willow branch about a foot above the water and, leaning slightly forward, stared intently at the surface.  After what seemed like 24 hours, the heron lunged forward with a lightening motion of its neck and nearly fell off the perch.  An extended bout of lip smacking indicated that it had nailed some small unseen tidbit.

Apparently satisfied for the moment, the small heron re-positioned itself further up on the branch and entered into a series of stretching and preening moves. Like a baseball player contorting in the batter box in preparation for his time at bat, it engaged every possible muscle and pose.  In so doing it demonstrated a few key heron traits.

The bird in question was probably an independent juvenile entering into adult plumage. The back feathers still retained the brownish scalloped look of a younger bird. There was none of the greenish iridescence displayed by the adult. Granted, the species is never really “green” enough to justify the name but to be fair; the original given name was Green-backed Heron. This referred to the reflected color of the bird’s back in the light of a full sun.  Rufous Heron might better name due to the bright red-brown neck coloration, but no one asked me (for good reason- I once had a pet rabbit named Grange and a Hamster called Twirly, so my naming ability is definitely suspect).

This non-green Green Heron began by aligning a few lower neck feathers with its beak. Then, it fanned its left wing in full extension over the back and paralled by an out-stretched left leg. The backward pointing toe (the anisodactyl toe, if you want a “word for the day”) was brought forward. The right wing and leg were exercised in a mirror manner.

The effort to scratch the back of his head caused the bird to flare a prominent crest – giving it a much more heron-like appearance.  The middle toe of all herons is equipped with a neat little comb consisting of a notched toenail.  Our little Green Heron was putting this so-called pectinate claw (another “word of the day” to use tomorrow) into action to neaten and de-louse the hard-to-reach head feathers.

Another very heron-like thing exhibited by this bird was revealed by the distinctive crooked neck. Green Herons have very long necks but they are rarely seen with them fully up unless flustered (such as in the above photo). Otherwise they fold them back into an “s” shape and, because the bend is covered by long neck feathers, they can virtually appear as no-necked. This neck crook, or kink, is located above the center point. Internally it consists of a few elongated neck vertebrae (the 5th, 6th, and 7th for you chiropractors out there) and a network of supporting tendons. With such an adaptation the Green can propel the folded neck into rapid act by using this as a pivot point.

As if to punctuate the whole yoga session, the heron finally performed the “neck out and low followed by an upward get-up-in-the morning bringing together of the elbows while held over the back.”  This was by far the most satisfying move and one which insured that the bird’s day would be pain free from heron in.

August 9, 2013

The Red’s Higher Up This Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:38 pm

Instead of sitting out on the front porch, as per usual custom, I sipped my early morning coffee at Dollar Lake from inside the cabin. I was awkwardly perched on the edge of the couch arm in a “half-cheek” manner and craned to get a good view out the window towards the lake. A hawk was perched on a side branch of the scraggly Black Willow next to the shoreline cattails. Any attempt on my part to open the door would have frightened the thing for sure. The door sticks mightily, you see, and opens with a pistol-shot crack every time it is un-sealed for the day.

This hawk was well worth the discomfort. Instead of being the usual Red-tailed variety the red on this bird was higher up – it was a much rarer Red-shouldered Hawk. He was in “my” yard and in hunting mode.

A century ago I could have expected such a sight even from my Monroe home in S.E. Michigan. I and my yard, of course, weren’t around then but at that time the Red-shouldered Hawk was the most common buteo (larger bodied hawks) in Michigan. Their southern Michigan population was nearly wiped out, however (95% reduction according to some estimates). Being creatures of mature woodlands and water, they did not respond well to the intensive agriculture which cleared the woodlands and pushed the bulk of the population northward. Today they are un-common residents of the forested reaches of the northern Lower Peninsula and eastern U.P.  and are listed as a State Threatened bird.

So, you can see why I was interested in observing this fellow close-up. I often hear the familiar “Kee rah” call echoing over the lake from the State Land on the opposite shore but for all (my) practical purposes these are ghost birds.

The bird was presenting his back side to the gawker in the window at first glance. From this perspective the most distinguishing characters, apart from the obvious crow sized body (much smaller than any Red-tail), were the checkered wing feathers and the black and white banded tail. The tail bands consisted of three or four wide black ones separated by thin white stripes.  A sharply hooked, rather small, beak was framed by a bright yellow cere (the fleshy part where beak meets face).

In the early morning light it was near impossible to detect the “red” shoulders but they expressed themselves in the rufous red-brown shading of the upper wing coverts and back if you looked hard enough.  This is not a character that defines the bird in spite of the name.

As the hawk surveyed his surroundings he divided his attention between the cattail patch immediately under him and the mowed portion of my yard behind him. He spent much of his time peering over his shoulder. I was hoping he would make a dive at something and he eventually did make an attempt in the mowed grass. Whatever his intended victim was it got away. After a few probing grabs with his talon he flew up and perched on a Maple limb over our firepit.  There he resumed his vigil with an eye towards the corner of the yard and his belly facing the porch.

The chest/belly of a mature Red-shouldered Hawk is covered with reddish brown striping – the effect of which is to make the bird look robin-breasted.  From this angle, the bright yellow legs and intensive yellow eyes were also very apparent.  About the only hawk you could confuse it with at this point would be an over-inflated Cooper’s Hawk with a tail problem.

The rufous bellied bird made one more unsuccessful attempt at predation from this location.  As to what he was not catching I can only guess, but that corner of the yard is ripe with leopard frogs, garter snakes, and more than a few skinks.  Over half of the diet of a typical Red-shoulder consists of rodents, but reptiles and amphibians make up nearly a third of the fare, so I suspect it was one of these cold-blooded options that frustrated him.

Red finally left the place after about 40 minutes or so. His departure was certainly stimulated by the lack of success but finalized by an entourage of angry local birds which persistently hovered near him like a cloud of mosquitoes.  Robins, red-winged blackbirds, some titmice, nuthatches, and a very bold hummingbird buzzed the hawk on a regular basis. The hummingbird returned several times to make a statement against the much larger bird (no doubt humming a verse from “Hit the Road Jack.”). Finally, it was all too much and the harassed hawk took wing with two robins in pursuit.

I also arose from my precarious (and painful) perch to allow the feeling to return to my hinder parts. I poured a new cup of Joe, walked out onto the porch, and waited for the next installment of the Dollar Lake Nature Theatre.

August 1, 2013

Funky Robin Talk

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:03 pm

O.K. I am going to blow my horn just a little bit – a toot if you will. I was a winner in the recent Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology “Funky Nests in Funky Places” online contest. I submitted a pair of photos, a ditty, and a cartoon and won a fairly expensive pair of binoculars for my effort.  Let’s not dwell on the fact that there were lots of winners or that I probably beat out some very sad little grade schooler who spent weeks crying over her loss and vowing to give up on art for the rest of her life because of it. I say, get used to it kid – been there, done that.

The purpose of the contest, with a focus on urbanized birds, was to record some ridiculous, unusual, funny or otherwise inappropriate nesting spots. As you might expect, a majority of the entries featured American Robins. After all, there are very few Bald Eagles that will be found nesting in a mailbox and even fewer Loons that will choose to nest atop a concrete frog in a garden pond. Either case would produce a sure contest winner.  Fortunately, Robins do the “funky thing” so well that this contest could re-titled as “Funky Robin nests in Funky Places” and the entries would still pour in by the hundreds.

My entry was sent in on the last possible day. I wasn’t procrastinating, however. I just didn’t have any funkiness to report. When I encountered two Robin nests built within the house gutters right next to the downspout – not in the usual spot underneath the gutter, but actually in the gutter trough itself- I thought to myself “Hey, that’s funky…and timely!”

  Bad Decisions 1 & 2

The funny thing about these nests is that they are probably placed in the worst of all possible places. Sure, during dry weather the spot is ready made but, like an arroyo in the desert, it fills with rushing water after the first rainstorm.  The first nest had already been long been flooded over by the time I discovered it. The second nest was fresher and was located in an identical situation at the end of the garage gutter. This structure had survived long enough for the bird to place one egg into it before the next rain took its watery toll.

Due to the similarity and proximity of the two nests I believe they were built by the same bird-brained individual. Hopefully this double failure knocked some sense into the builder. Common sense and instinct don’t always converge when it comes to robins.

For those robins who do build in more sensible locations, few will re-use a nest after it has completed its purpose. Some may raise a second brood in the same structure if time and hormones permit, but for the most part nests are “one off” creations. An old nest becomes an unrecognizable part of the landscape the second the last nestling flies the coop. Still, you’d think that birds would adapt old nests or even recycle material and save energy every time they raise a new brood. You’d think wrong, grasshopper.

The cross beam supporting my Dollar Lake cabin porch is a favorite for the local robins.  The spot is well protected from the elements and the nests will not come down unless physically removed by moi. The current robin has just added a 6th nest to the scene. In the space between a particular pair of roof joists which already sported three nests, she added a fourth. It is nestled tightly in the perfectly sized vacancy between two old nests.

From a human perspective this situation looks ridiculous – like building a house right next to a row of perfectly good, identical, and free homes. From the bird’s perspective it all makes perfect sense. The old nests are not recognized as nests because the female did not build them. They might as well be lawn statuary as far as she is concerned. It is the process of nest building that completes the mental necessity of the breeding cycle.

It’s all about being in the mood – being funky, I guess you could say. It so happens that robins are in the right mood at the wrong place more than any other common species.

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