Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 24, 2013

A Hybird Honker

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:44 am

Who am I?

Like the bear going over the mountain, I sometimes I go walking just to see what I can see. There are no mountains at Crosswinds Marsh but that is the place I chose for my most recent blind foray. In the wake of a deeply chilled night the place was ice covered and frosted. It was a place of white shadows and white birds. Hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls mingled with a scattering of ceramic Mute Swans. The foreheads of twenty or so foraging Sandhill Cranes provided a flash of red to the scene. Great Blue Herons, refusing to yield to migration pressures, claimed the boardwalk rails as their fishing platforms. This being Crosswinds, there were also Canada Geese in numbingly huge numbers.

I barely give notice to the honkers because they are as numerous and common as the cat-tails. Because cat-tails are not weeds, I can’t state that geese are like weeds, but I am tempted. Scanning their numbers, the hope is to spot an occasional Snow Goose among their numbers. Last week I did see one such fowl here.  This time, my attention was drawn to the big-butted domestic Goose mingling with the horde.

The Domestic in Question

The bird has been here for many years. It “hangs” with the local geese and no doubt considers itself as a true Canadian (in fact looking a whole lot like the mayor of Toronto). In basic appearance, this goose is the spitting image of the wild Graylag Goose from which it, and most farm geese, are descended. It is much thicker than its wild cousin thanks to decades of breeding as a table bird. In other words, that big behind is not the result of evolutionary accident or lack of exercise.

Parent or Bystander?

Short necked and orange billed, the bird stands out in the sea of thin-necked black-billed Canada Geese. On this morning it was in the company of a dozen Canada Geese. One of the swimmers next to the chunky domestic demanded attention, however. This goose (see beginning and below) looked Canada-like in general terms but had a pinkish-orange bill, orange legs, a white bordered face, and a watered-down version of the white chin patch. The neck, while dark, was brown rather than black and the border line where it met the chest was indistinct.

The Hybrid in Question

The features of this goose were typical of a hybrid between a Canada and, dare I say it, a Domestic Graylag Goose. Such a cross is well documented in the literature. It looks like neither bird but consistently displays the features of both. The white face could come from a hidden gene in the domestic bird. It appears that our Crosswinds domestic is an intimate – really intimate – part of the gang. But, I might be jumping to conclusions with that remark. There are three possibilities here. Consideration of the truth involves a brief look at the phenomenon hybridizing geese.

Hybridization is relatively common among wild geese. Even though they are made up of many separate species, they are not far enough along on the evolutionary timeline to be completely incompatible. Genetically there are not enough barriers to prevent red-headed step children or mailman’s kids. Behavior acts as the best separator but there is evidence that many of these hybirds…er, hybrids… occur when a male of one species forces itself on the female of another. This is why we don’t go into this subject with children.

The Crosswinds hybrid can be explained as the result of a Domestic Graylag or a White-fronted Goose mating with a Canada Goose. The most common explanation is the former (and given the fact that a Graylag is present, seems the 90% answer). White-fronted X Canada hybrids are much less common in our area because White-fronted Geese aren’t common here. But it can’t ruled out. The white face and bill features are suspicious. The bill especially looks exactly like that found on immature White-fronted Geese – with a black “nail” or tip on a pale pinkish/orange beak. I’ll have to stick with the 90% answer because I can’t do a blood test.

Actually that blood test would come in handy to answer the third possible scenario. Young geese tend to hang out with other birds that look like their parents. If a goose was raised in a family with a Graylag parent, it will naturally seek the company of other Graylags later on. It is possible that this hybrid bird came from elsewhere and decided to join in with the big-butt bird at Crosswinds to be with its own kind – whatever that kind is. Therefore we can’t pin the domestic Graylag as the guilty party in this child’s existence.

There, now I’ve taken a simple thing and turned it into a complicated mess. Other than bleeding the poor hybrid to death, we can only hope that somebody out there will come forward to the bench with proof that they saw the porky domestic in the company of a clutch of fuzzy young hybirds earlier in the summer. Of course, the conspiracy theories would never cease even if that happened. Rather than kill the fowl, let’s kill this blog and pretend it never happened.

A Bird In-between

November 17, 2013

Closing Up the Lodge

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:30 pm

Even though life in and around Dollar Lake will continue on pace through to next Spring, our role in it has come to an end for yet another year. It was time for my wife and I to close the place up for the winter and bid it adieu until next April or so. It is a rite of passage as time-honored as the falling of leaves and the annual felling of deer.

For the resident White-footed Mice this initiates a season of celebration. They can cavort unmolested for 24 hours a day and blithely use the space behind the couch pillows as an eating lounge – without picking up the left-over acorn shells.  The mystery creature that lives between the walls can now scratch away at night without evoking fearful comments from the female human bedded within. I trust that the lone ladybug that spent her weekend flying fruitlessly from light to light will now be able to settle down and squeeze itself into some crack for the dark lightless duration.

Even though I call our place the Muskrat Lodge – a small hummock placed along the shore occupied by a dues paying member of the Muskrat Defense League -the lake has been relatively muskratless this summer. Sure they made an eating platform under the dock this Spring and occasionally scattered some cat-tail chewings in the near shore water, but the ‘rats themselves rarely showed in the light, or even the dim light, of morning or evening. They retained their full membership in the nocturnal night club set.


As if on cue, however, one of the little fellows put in an appearance on the final full day of our cabin season. While a thin veneer of ice glazed most of the lake surface, this lone ‘rat pursued water plants in the open shallows at the north. Alternately dunking under and returning with a mouthful of tender plants, he perched atop the remains of a Spatterdock root to eat his fare. In typical muskrat style, he frequently stopped to groom or scratch at a pesky underarm spot.

I am certainly not saying that the ‘rat cared one wit about the human standing on the dock other than acknowledging that there was a human standing on the dock. When the creature spied me and directed a sustained stare in my direction I did not imagine it to be a farewell glance. No, it looked more like an “are you still here!” type of look. I am, after all, the useless part-timer in his world. At least our neighbor puts out corn.  He plunged into the drink and retreated to the secrecy of the real muskrat lodge on this lake.

This morning, our packing up morning, the muskrat was back. In a lake as tiny as Dollar, his small erect form on top of his feeding spot gave him beaver-like proportions. He was a noble beast in a less than noble lake. For the moment he was the largest rodent in the area – out sizing the cabin mice, the shed chipmunk, and the yard grey squirrels. I never gave him a chance to snub my goodbye waves because he dunked early and disappeared from view before we closed and locked the doors.

It was only in the last few moments before leaving that I discovered the cause of his pre-mature exit. In short, he had been de-throned by a visiting monarch. A mature Bald Eagle drifted down from the tree line and made a low pass over the lake adjacent to our dock. It settled in the lofty branches of the scraggly White Pine directly opposite our cabin and scanned the place for potential prey. Bald Eagles are primarily fish eaters but they often add muskrats to their diet. Given the crappy nature of the Dollar Lake fishery I suspect that ‘rats might be the primary prey for such a visitor (thus the uber nocturnal ways adopted by the local ‘ratery). We snuck away without disturbing the bird and left the lake to its wild ways for another winter.

It is hard to say goodbye to the drooping cat-tail leaves and extended coffee mornings on the porch. It is equally hard to bid departure from the flaming red Michigan holly bushes in the surrounding countryside and the deep green Balsam Firs. But, you know what they say about absence…..

November 10, 2013

Big Beaver, Little Beaver

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:57 pm

The urban beavers of the Conners Creek colony become diehard nocturnalists during the spring/summer season. They spend the daylight hours loafing within the dark confines of their lodge and only venture outside when darkness covers their activities. Any human attempt to observe them at that time of year will be basically beaverless.

Urged on by the preparation needs of the impending winter, however, the beavers will linger about for a few hours after sunrise and before sunset. At this time of year they add material to the top of their lodge and stock their underwater stores of cottonwood and willow twigs. After several beaverless springtime efforts, I chose to concentrate on the fall season in order to catch a few daytime glimpses of the creatures. I was successful for the most part.

The only reason I qualify my success is due to the fact that I can only attest to the presence of one beaver this time. That particular beast, however, was the familiar notch-tailed adult that I recorded last season.  All of the beavers at this lodge look pretty much alike apart from the smaller young. “Notch”, with a huge divot in her tail, is the exception and one glimpse of that damaged appendage is enough to individualize her. Admittedly, this her could be a him, but because it is easier to say beavher than beavehe I will stick to the feminine designation (wow that was stupid wasn’t it!).

Although I was familiar with her, she was much less tolerant of me this time.  It was raining and I was wearing a bright yellow raincoat upon my second visit of the season. This caused her to immediately drop what she was doing (de-barking a dogwood twig) and swim over for a closer look. Once satisfied at my identity, rather than return to her routine, she sounded the alarm and dove with a loud tail splash. She bobbed to the surface about ten minutes later (see movie) but still retained that “creeped-out” look on her face and ultimately opted to end her day long before the 9:00 hour.

Over the course of subsequent visits, actual sightings have been few and far between, but it is apparent that the beavers have been hard at work on the lodge. Mounds of fresh mud, water plants, and gnawed sticks have been heaped upon their shelter. A comparison of the photos- taken one week apart -reveal just how much work has been accomplished (see below). Yes, the Conners Creek beavers have been as busy as….o.k., I won’t say it.

Oct. 31, 2013



Nov. 5, 2013

Apart from natural material, a few items of urban “junk” are pile atop the lodge. What looks to be a boat hoist strap of some kind was soon buried by mud. A rake, complete with handle and times, was added to the lower portion of the structure (see below at center). This time has not been yet been covered up. I secretly wonder if Notch has been employing the tool to dress the surface of the lodge and thus her nervousness stems from the possibility that I might find out.

Oddly enough, I saw more muskrats than beavers about the lodge this autumn. Seeing at least two individuals repeatedly enter and exit the structure has been enough to convince me that they are living with their larger cousin. It is not unusual for these two creatures to share a lodge – in fact, such a thing seems to be the norm. Beaver-cams (cameras installed inside beaver lodges) have revelaed this again and again.

It seems that a pair of ‘rats have set up living quarters within the larger space of the lodge interior and are adding to it daily. They are performing this function as if they themselves built the original mound. Gathering mouthfuls of water plants, they plunge into the entrance and appear for another load several minutes later. Given the vast open space within a beaver lodge interior I am thinking that the muskrats are utilizing a corner apartment carved out of the mud and sticks.

As if to display their complete comfort with this arrangement, the ‘rats raised at least one family in the Conners Creek lodge.  A young muskrat took a brief foray from the confines of the family apartment and put in an appearance among the Cottonwood sticks (see below). The tiny creature was still clothed in fuzzy gray underfur pajamas and was yet to gain its smoother covering of guard hairs.

Because both animals are basically nocturnal they likely spend a lot of time together inside the lodge. Most of this time is spent sleeping, but one wonders what the beavers would have to say to their tiny tenants during these times. I would think the conversation would be simple and polite between the two like-minded creatures. The beavers would withhold comment when the muskrats occasionally break their vegetarian habits and imbibe in a meal of fish or clam and the ‘rats would have to change the subject upon seeing the beavers eating their own poop (which they do doo).



November 2, 2013

A Mouse’s House

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:29 pm

Late fall signals the time to winterize the Dollar Lake cabin. It’s time to flush the pipes, put the porch furniture away, and cover the inside furniture with drop cloths. For us human occupants it is time to prepare the place for months of relative un-occupancy. I say “relative” because in the absence of humans it becomes a mouse kingdom. There are times when I feel that we are the intruders. We move in, muss about for a few days at a time over the summer, and force the original residents into a shadowy reclusive existence. They must sneak about under the cover of darkness lest they attract unwanted (and potentially deadly) attention from the “two-leggers.”

Other than the presence of a few filched peanut shells and scattered droppings, the White-footed Mice of the “Muskrat Lodge” (our quaint name for the cabin) do their best to remain incognito most of the time. They begin their winter cabin preparations about a month before we do, however, and the two activities are diametrically opposed. We empty our cupboards while they proceed to fill theirs.  We remove the boxes of Pop Tarts and Spaghetti Noodles and they bring in acorns- lots of acorns.

The cabin yard is host to three different kinds of oak trees; Red, White, and – as I was to find out – a Northern Pin Oak. For a nut-lover such as a White-footed Mouse, the seasonal bounty is an answer to all manner of squeaky prayer.  Nuts spell survival. This has been a banner year for acorn production and it is the job of all self-respecting cabin mice to cache as many of these survival gems as possible.

For them, “our” place becomes a giant warehouse burrow with countless niches. While we may never find the behind-the-wall or under-the-whatever caches, we did uncover two of the locations.

Pulling away the cover quilt on the bed, 14 acorns populated the space between the pillows. A much larger stash was uncovered in the bathroom.  There were 40 nuts piled in the corner of the bathroom drawer next to the disposable razor and the allergy pills. A single acorn sat atop the rolled tan hand towel on the upper tier between the green floral and brown ones and yet another was nestled in the lower tier between the moss green and blue & white floral.

In all, I found 56 acorns. I assembled the caches and piled them collectively on the coffee table for examination.  This collection obviously represented a selective process. All were capless, and uniformly sized, with the exception of the lower tier nut which was significantly larger. Striped and slightly fuzzy, they were quite handsome – certainly by mouse standards and possibly even by human standards.  I went outside to investigate the mouse’s marketplace to find which department offered this exact product.

Most the oaks in the immediate yard are White or Red oak variety. The ground is littered with them but they were not represented in the cabin mouse’s cache at all. A smaller tree, whose trunk is located about 15 feet from the south side of the place, proved to be the source. It was a Northern Pin Oak. I am ashamed to say, as naturalist, that I hadn’t bothered to identify this tree before.  Since this tree was not the closest one to the cabin, I can only suspect that it was a matter of taste and portability. “I’d walk a mile for a Northern Pin Oak” is apparently a popular cabin mouse ad phrase with the additional “and, I can walk a mile with a Pin Oak Acorn” as an amendment. Northern Pin Oaks are mouse-sized bites of survival.

I felt guilty in removing the nut piles (for some odd reason my wife refused to sleep with the nuts rolling around the pillow). Although the pillow acorns involved multiple short journeys – one nut at a time- between 10 and 15 feet, the bathroom collection represented a much more majestic effort. As far as I can figure, this trip involved 42 wall-hugging round trips of about 80 feet each; out the bedroom, right along the side wall under the corner table and then left along the wall towards the front door, past and under the wall furnace, a dash across the kitchen floor and a righty into the bathroom, a three foot ascent up the side of the bathroom shelf and into the drawer. One half of each trip with an acorn stuffed within its maw.

So, as a peace offering of sorts, I piled the acorns in the far corner of the living room as we left on a two week absence. I’m hoping the cabin mouse (or mice) can find a way to creatively re-distribute the wealth around their house.

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