Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 24, 2013

I knew him Horatio…I think

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:50 pm

Squirrels are dramatic creatures. It is easy to undersell them as nut-fixated simpletons who are constantly over-reacting to all manner of real and perceived threat. There is the road-crossing thing to consider as well. But we as a species can hardly point an accusatory finger. One observation trip to watch Walmart customers should confirm that we should be very humble when it comes to touting the superior human condition. I go to Walmart, by the way, so I am admitting that this pot is as black as the kettle.

On this note, Shakespeare didn’t invent the “pot calling the kettle black” imagery, but my use of it does bring up a literary thought (he did say that “the raven chides blackness” which evokes the same idea).  Imagine, if you will, a Shakespearian world of Squirrel drama and perhaps you’ll see these rodents in a new nobler light. Shakespeare populated his plays with all manner of fools and squirrel-like characters. If he had written actual squirrels into the roles then things would be different. “Romeo, oh Romeo where is thee my nut” might have made it into the mainstream. Playing Sciurus in “Roads Half Crossed” would be a choice role for aspiring actors.

As an example, let me forward a discussion of squirrel feet. In his play Troilus and Cressida, the Bard has Ulysses state: “The elephant hath joints, but none for courtesy: his legs are legs for necessity, not for flexure.” I other words, elephants are made to do elephant things (such as march in a line like in the Jungle Book).  Might he have used a Fox Squirrel’s amazing front foot as an example as well? “The squirrel has toes, but five is not his number: four the nut deed it does better than our five.”

Equipped with long toes, Fox Squirrels (as all tree squirrels) have evolved so that their fifth toe has become a rubbery nub. They also have two thick pads on their “wrist.” With this combination they are able to secure circular and orbitcular (whoa, that was definitely not a Walmart word) objects –aka nuts – with security. So held, the teeth can then do their thing and they can manipulate their food with precision and dexterity. An elegant piece of prose the squirrel foot is.

Ah, but squirrels do not just grab nuts with their sinewy fingers.  Over the course of the summer I witnessed one of my Red Squirrels feasting upon a muskrat skull. This certainly evokes that famous scene in Hamlet where Horatio and the prince examine Yorick’s skull. Seated on her favorite walnut devouring perch, the reigning queen Red Squirrel occasionally selects a muskrat skull from my pile (that’s another story) and devours it. Like all rodents they crave calcium and will eat any bone material they find. This is why shed deer antlers are so hard to find, by the way – thus the un-written line: “My resolve, like a shed horn in a squirrel wood, shant last.”

I find the muskrat/squirrel scene an especially poignant one because the two animals are cousins, although she could not have known the ‘rat in question. The Red Squirrel’s own skull is a smaller scale version of the muskrat’s noggin. Four self-sharpening front incisors are followed by a toothless gap and a double row of flat molars.  The incisors are frequently rubbed together with a forward motion of the lower jaw and their edges are thus honed (compare the two photos below). Sharp teeth cut through nut shells like butter. Squirrels, therefore, gnash their teeth on purpose. “Heavily my buck teeth grind -not of nervousness but of need.”


I stumbled upon on the dead body of one of my front yard Fox Squirrels last week. It was freshly dead with only a bloody nose. Because it was far from the deadly road that had claimed another squirrel the week previous, I could only conclude that it fell out of the Red Maple under whose branches it lay. Yes, squirrels do slip and fall to their death on occasion. Perhaps it was driven to madness by the government shutdown news or distracted by the recent death of his sibling. Whatever the cause, it tumbled to earth and remained there.

I’m not sure if any Shakespearian character ever fell to his/her death (thus revealing my squirrelish understanding of the genre) but I certainly know that ghosts and spirits abound within his world. Hamlet’s father appears as a ghost, for instance. Gazing upon the small dead rodent before me I wondered what afterlife, if any, is enjoyed by such creatures. Heaven must have animals in it. There are cats are in Hell, why can’t there be squirrels in heaven?

I picture my beast, now noble, entering into the heavenly fold at the base of a tremendous Walnut tree – a Walmart of nuts – which is piled with an endless cornucopia of orbicular pleasure. Shakespeare has Hamlet remark: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  If he’d written “There are more nuts in heaven and earth etc.” I suspect our world view of squirrels would be much better than it currently is.  “Sleep well my sweet prince.”

October 19, 2013

Late Raptor on the Raisin

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:23 pm

The bird was sitting so still and located so high up in the branches on the opposite shore that it was hard to spot. With Zen-like concentration the young Osprey was patiently fishing the River Raisin. It took me quite a while to spot it because I was directing my Zen at the rippling water, a nearby Fox Squirrel, and a cluster of tiny flitting warblers in the willows. While the sight of an Osprey isn’t unusual, the sight of one so late in the season is notable.

These elegant fish eagles are migrants and most of the population would normally be well on their way south by this time.  When I say south, by the way, I mean SOUTH as in South America. They over-winter in the rain forests of Venezuela, Columbia and the Amazon – actually spending more time in the tropics than they do stateside. Since this destination is nearly 3,000 miles, and nearly a month, away from the Sycamores of the Raisin, it is not advisable to delay departure.  This sighting prompted me to look into the migration records and see just how “out of season” this bird really was.  The ultimate answer in this case borders on the fine line between fashionably and significantly late.

Fortunately, there are a lot of folks out there banding and tagging Ospreys. The answer to a question regarding Osprey promptness is only a computer key click away. With the current transmitter technology at play, it is possible to remotely track an individual on a daily basis and there are numerous sites which display these results (check out for one fine example). This also means that I can just sit at my computer in my “jams” and benefit from the hard work of others in order to share the following facts.  Based on my extensive cyber-searching, I can state that a majority of the eastern Ospreys are booking to Brazil by late September and the first week in October.

One individual from the Ohio Valley was headed south by Sept. 20 and smoking cigars in Cuba by the 27th. It crossed into Columbia by Oct. 5 and arrived at the Amazon River basin in Brazil on October 14. Another bird left Martha’s Vinyard on Sept. 20 and settled in for a long stay in Venezuela by Oct. 15. Among the later records, an Oct. 4 departure (again from the Martha’s Vinyard) resulted in a flyover of Cuba by the 15th.

Closer to home, the hawk watchers at the Detroit River migration site at Lake Erie Metropark  typically see a few southward bound Osprey crossing over from Canada through mid-October with a few stragglers extending into end of the month.  To date, they have recorded only 8 birds for this season with half of those peaking around Oct. 10. Last year only 18 birds crossed over and most were through by Oct. 12. It is notable that two birds came over on the last week of October. See, I told you this fact and figure stuff can be infectious.

It has just been reported that a transmitter banded bird, “Monroe Spark” raised on a nest in Northern Monroe County, was already texting that it arrived in Cuba as of Oct. 18, 2013 and was Haiti bound (the same day I spotted my Osprey on the Raisin). My bird, therefore, was a late bird by even Monroe, Michigan standards. It is tempting to use the phrase “young and dumb” to describe such a late leaving lagger however that would ignore the fact that “Spark” is also a young bird.

Before closing, I probably should explain how I can state that my un-named bird was a young Osprey. Let’s name him “Late” just for the heck of it. Without banding evidence, it is impossible to judge age beyond a few years (they can live 20 + years and travel over 100,000 miles in a lifetime).  Immature birds – aka young of the year -have dark orange eyes, breast speckling, and significant white scaling on the dark back feathers.  Adults have intense yellow eyes and solid brown backs (females can retain some spotting/buffiness around the upper chest).  Most of the young birds like “Late” stay down in the tropics a few years before returning to breed.

Finally, there is the issue of the fishing line dangling near “Late’s” perch. I didn’t notice this until looking at the images after the fact. From the angle of view it looked as if the line might have been entangled around the bird’s foot. As fisher birds, this is an all too frequent problem for Ospreys. Such a situation might be the cause of “Late’s” lateness, I thought.

I returned to the place by the river later in the day. The Osprey was gone and the fishing line was still hanging in place. It was probably dislodged from an earlier fish catch and was not entangled on the bird’s foot. Did “Late” finally leave for good? I can only hope that I should be receiving a post card from Brazil sometime on the week before Thanksgiving. It will read  ”Acaba de llegar. Disfrutando el sushi aquí. Firmado Tardío (Late).”*

*Just arrived. Enjoying the sushi here. Signed Late.

October 14, 2013

Faraway Close and Close Away Near

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:34 pm

As a traditional Naturalist, I have always advocated bringing along a pair of binoculars on every field trip as a basic tool of the trade. In fact, I’ve even stressed the importance of always keeping a cheap pair with you – you know one that you can throw around a bit and don’t have to “protect” – just to be ready for those surprise situations when some critter or vista pops up unexpectedly.  A few degrees of magnification can spell the difference between turning a Robin into a Sharp-shinned Hawk, or panther into a house cat.  Lately, however, I’ve been re-thinking the idea a bit.

I still own binoculars, and use them on occasion, but find that I increasingly depend on my digital camera as my “go-to” nature study tool. I can use a camera as a binocular because they now are amazingly smart and optically breathtaking. I can use the images for identification and employ them to help others as well.

I was, shall we say, “introduced” to this concept several years ago on one of my public nature walks. One of the participants used his digital zoom camera to reveal that the Robin which I had confidently identified in yonder tree was actually a Sharp-shinned Hawk. His picture of the bird, even though it wasn’t all that great as a photo, clearly showed the red eye and buffy chest.  I ate crow and used the incident as a teachable moment. We clustered around the tiny screen and I was able to point out the key features. I also decided to carry my own camera on all my future walks – both public and personal – from that time forward.

Rather than drone on about this idea, let’s put up a few recent examples for display. This past weekend, I led a nature study group on a field trip at a local park. Several unidentified dickey birds were twittering back and forth in a yonder cluster of Cottonwood trees. They weren’t Robins or Sharp-shinned Hawks, but some larger dark bird among a host of smaller ones.

A few zooms and clicks of the camera and the birds magically transformed into a female Red-winged Blackbird and some winter phase Goldfinches. I gathered our gang to point out the field marks on the small screen so they could naked-eye these same field marks on the real birds before us. The female Red-wing was preening, so her head was plunged into her feathers, but her breast streaking and head markings were clear enough. “Red wings are true migrants,” I announced in my naturalist-as-leader voice. “Nearly every individual migrates out of the region for the winter and when they return they are the first sign of Spring.”  The Goldfinches were in greenish cast but their black wings sported a diagnostic set of white wing bars. I never had to reveal that I initially thought that the birds were Butterbutts (Yellow-rumped Warblers). How smart I appeared.


Neither of the photos (shown here) were of calendar quality, but good enough for field work.

At least three migrant Monarch Butterflies coursed by.  One landed nearby and a quick camera shot allowed me to display an extreme close-up of the wing venation. Lack of a gland spot on the hind wing was proof enough that it was a she and not a he. I did suggest that she was terribly late and probably would never make it to the mountains of Central Mexico, but at least she would look pretty while dying.

The Monarch incident was actually a case of bringing a close object even closer and this is the type of digital magic that a camera can also do. Further down the trail, I used my nature study tool to enlarge a tiny Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly (see below) to the point where all could see his black and white antennae segmenting and the hairy fringe on the wing.


Not to be outdone by any finch, fowl or ‘fly, a sizable female Praying Mantis patiently stepped onto my palm and accepted the ride up to the collected gaze of the nature study group. In this case, our nature study endeavor involved direct eye to eye contact – the best of all natural experiences. Yet, even here I opted to take a few intimate portrait shots while she presented her noble profile against the autumn sky.

These shots showed the fine detailing of the “forearm” serrations, foot structure, and wing venation with nearly microscopic detail. Perhaps the most important thing to mention, in this circumstance, is that I chose to wait until after the beast had flown away before displaying these images. Ms. Mantid hung around for quite a while before propelling off into the Goldenrods. No matter what, it is always best to pay close attention to the real thing when it is there.  Nature study is all about the moment.

It has long been known that the camera captures moments but in its digital form it can also be an extra eye to enhance the moment as it occurs. I declare it an essential nature study tool.  If use of this device also happens to enhance the illusion that I am smart, who am I to argue with technology?

October 6, 2013

Peeping Tomisina

Filed under: BlogsMonroe,Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:55 pm

It wasn’t the bottom of the 9th, but more like the top of the 5th when I finally quit the Tiger Baseball playoff game for the night. It was getting late and they were playing the A’s in Oakland and, well…it was late and “we” were winning , so please don’t get on me about being a true fan. Hey, did I say it was late? Well it was.  At any rate, I turned off the television and wheeled around to turn off the light when I saw someone looking at me through the sliding glass door. His face and the better part of his body, was pressed up against the glass. And, I should mention, he was completely naked.

If the sight had been that of a human Peeper (as in a Tom), the sight would have elicited a cascade of inner Psycho music and an immediate bowel-emptying incident. But, the Peeper in this scenario was a frog – not a Peeper (as in Spring) but a Tree Frog (as in Gray). I must admit that I jumped a tiny bit before fascination took over and I ran for my camera. Sure, late night frogs trump late night Tigers in this man’s world. It wasn’t really that late.

Technically there are two kinds of Tree Frogs in our region and both go by the name of Gray Tree Frog. Both climb trees, have pebbled skin, and trill like miniature raccoons. The Cope’s Gray Tree Frog is nearly identical in appearance to the standard Gray Gray Tree Frog except that it has a nasal quality to its voice along with a few more slight, but biologically significant, differences. My peeper was of the usual Gray Gray Tree Frog type.


Grays can alter their skin color from gray to green depending on their daytime camouflage needs (thus the scientific name Hyla versicolor). In spite of the name, the mottled green mode can be considered the default coloration since night hunting doesn’t require any camo. The belly view presented a display of the bright yellow inner leg patches typical of the species and also revealed the sex identity. It’s all about throat shading, you see. Males have dark throats while females have light ones. This peeper wasn’t a Tom after all, it was a Tomisina.

The creature was stuck to the glass like one of those plastic goo-balls. Although there is a slight possibility that she was trying to watch the Tigers game, I am fairly confident that it was seeking the insects which were attracted to the light. Regular old American Toads frequently hop about in the dim glow of the night window for the same reason. They, however, are earth bound fellows who can only dream of doing what their arboreal Anuran cousins can do. The only way that an American Toad could hope to stick to the window glass in this manner would be as Potato Gun ammunition (or if the house suddenly accelerated forward at 60 miles per hour). Gray Tree Frogs are equipped with so-called “sucker discs” that enable them to climb trees, branches, and slick surfaces such as glass.

It is actually better to refer to these structures as toe pads because they are not suction cups in the true sense of the word. Detailed micro photography of tree frog pads shows them to be covered with thousands of hexagonal structures separated by tiny crevices (see here) Mucous glands line the bottom of each crevice. In a remarkable case of natural form repetition, basalt formations such as those found at the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland duplicate this structure in mega scale (see here).  The surface of the Tree Frog columns are covered with tiny bumps, so they aren’t exactly like the Irish rock example. And, as far as I know, there are no mucous glands at the bottom of the Basalt columns but hopefully you can get beyond all that. Next time you are in Ireland you can hop across the crackled rock surface screaming “Look everyone, I’m a wee little leprechaun and am standing atop a tree frog toe pad.”  Please let me know how that goes for you in the case you get such a golden opportunity.

The little Gray Tree Frog lassie was able to climb the dry glass (oddly enough, an overly wet surface decreases this effect and the frog will slide) through the action of the sticky mucous and the multiple hex cells. Pressure creates suction. Release of same enables the walker to lift off and re-apply. Toes widely spread, each pad is allowed to make full contact for full effect.

Overall the effect is somewhat creepy when viewed by a sleepy human. I do wonder what this sleepy human looked like to the wee window frog. “Look everyone,” he might say, “I’m a wee little hopper and I’ve climbed the magic window and looked into the face of a two legged giant with three eyes.”


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