Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 30, 2013

Food Fight

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:44 am

Against the cold gray backdrop of Lake St. Clair Metropark the pile of fish parts looked rather festive. The golden bellies and speckled heads of gutted perch, bluegill and sunfish stood out clearly on the grass where an ice fisherman plopped it next to the parkway.  Although the placement was questionable, the pile provided a tempting bounty for the local Red-tailed Hawks.  It also proved to be a battleground for two immature birds seeking sushi.

By the time I came upon the scene, a single bird was picking away at the pile. A second hawk then floated down from a nearby Cottonwood and approached the first. Both contestants flared up and temporarily locked talons. With open mouths, flank feathers puffed, and wings held open, the two birds disengaged and resorted to a silent dance. Each attempted to intimidate the other.

Both birds were young-of-the-year Red Tailed hawks. Their tails were still brown and heavily barred and their eyes yellow – traits that morph into a reddish orange tail and brown eyes by the second year. They were equally sized as well. The only real difference was that one, the original owner of the pile, was darker than his competitor (see below).

The stand-off only lasted a few minutes before the outsider flew back to his perch on the Cottonwood. Surprisingly, the darker bird also abandoned the fish pile soon after.  Even though he was already full, as indicated by his bulging crop (the lump under his throat), he felt compelled to defend his riches and claim victory before abandoning it. I guess it was a matter of pride. The lighter bird eventually claimed the prize and was so engaged in gorging itself that it allowed me to approach within a few feet. He would not flush even as cars rushed by.

Whenever two or more Red-tails gather there is bound to be conflict. Even mated pairs will tussle from time to time. Fortunately nature has arranged it so that the larger females seek a slightly different prey base than the smaller males (as in the wife going to Kohl’s and the husband to Dunham’s Sports). This takes the edge off the potential competition between the two. Immature birds, being what they are – as in immature – will often duke it out with their fellow raptors. Their plight, however, is much more serious than just a hormonal tiff.

In the stark world of raptors most of the young birds die young. A majority, in fact, never live to celebrate their first birthday. This mortality is played out to the tune of 80%. The raptor reaper wears out dozens of scythes per year in the performance of his grim duty. He gives no quarter for young birds striving to navigate the painfully steep learning curve of independent life.  Winter is his finest hour. They don’t call it the dead of winter for nothing.

It will take every fish pile, road kill, and scrap of food to get a newly minted Red-tail through the winter. Young birds often rely on roadside carrion and become victims of road traffic themselves– becoming the dead feeding upon the dead. They must also learn to navigate through their new territory and discover the best hunting grounds and roosting locations.

The desperation of these fighting hawks is highlighted because they are fighting over a pile of dead fish. Typically over 80% of a Red-tail’s diet will consist of rodents, both the killed and pre-killed variety. Fish are so far down on that list as to be hardly worthy of mention. It is akin to two children fighting over a plate of okra and liver. But beggars are not choosers, as they say. About the only way a Red-tail can expect fresh fish is to hang around human fisherfolk. In retrospect this is not a bad idea.

To end on a high note, it is also a stark fact of raptor life that birds making it over that first horrendous hurdle of mortality can actually live long productive lives. It is not unusual for Red-tailed Hawks to reach twenty or more years of age in the wild and even longer in captivity.  By all odds, one of these birds will meet up with the reaper before the end of winter…but the ice fisherman of Lake St. Clair might have a role in beating those odds.

December 22, 2013

We Wish You a Merry Kestrel

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:19 am

There is a cornfield across from my house along with a brushy ditch lining the road. A lone male Kestrel has been keeping watch over a portion of this ditch from the lofty perch of a power line. There he sits patiently scanning the ground below for lunch in the form of a skittering meadow mouse. Whenever I approach the road with camera in hand – pretending to cross the road to get the mail – he takes flight.  They are nervous little falcons and quite intolerant.

Their nervous character is evident even from a great distance due to their habit of constantly twitching their tail. This, combined with the standard raptor trait of head bobbing, creates a stationary bird in constant motion. Before I elaborate into my usual departure from fact, I’d like to point out the features that mark this high wire bird as a male. The bright colors, especially the rich pale blue wing coverts and rusty head patch, along with a solid brick-red tail are marks of masculinity. Females lack these features and have heavily barred tails. Male birds are smaller than females, but this is not something easily perceived from a distance.

As members of the Falcon family they have a series of three black bars marking the face – the last set being reduced to a pair of dots. These function as eye spots. A Kestrel looking away appears to be looking back at any potential predator with stony black eyes (see below). These are small birds, little bigger than a robin, and they are predated upon as equally as they predate upon others.

Soaking as we are in sea of Christmas songs and gag-prompting commercials on this week previous to Christmas, my Kestrel thoughts are naturally flavored with a seasonal salt. Could it be true that our little predator is actually a hummingbird? By this I am wondering if he is quietly singing to himself and keeping beat with his tail and head. Instead of “Angels We Have Heard on High” he might be joyfully declaring from his wire perch:

“Kestrels we have heard on high,

sweetly singing o’er the plains,

and the meadows in reply,

echoing their joyous strain:

Kill-Killey  Kill-Killey, Kill-Killey Kill-le-ah

In excelsis Falco…etc.”

 

There are no bells upon his bobbing tail, but would it take that much imagination to picture him as “singing a slaying song tonight” as in “Meadow Mice, Meadow Mice, Mousing all the way…”? No, you see, it wouldn’t. In fact, I wonder if you might be cooking up another verse at this very minute. I suspect that male Kestrels sing with a tenor voice, by the way, so when performing these numbers in private you’d better keep that in mind. It helps to eat a rodent just before singing (do not – I repeat – do not heat up your chosen rodent in the microwave before consuming.)

As many of the best carols are ancient in origin they make use of archaic language. It is fitting, since Kestrels have been around for a very long time, to make use of their older name of “Sparrow Hawk.” This also gives us an opportunity to insert it into a three-syllable slot, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Sparrow Hawks.”  We’ll end our little foray into Christmas insanity with this piece and wish you a safe ride home. Remember to keep your eye on the road but don’t pass up the opportunity to wave to my little falcon up on the power line.

 

“God rest ye merry Sparrow Hawks,

let nothing you dismay,

for mice will be your savior

before the close of day.

To save yourself from hunger’s gnaw,

You’ll pounce on them and prey,

O tidings of predator and prey, pred’tor and prey

O tidings of predator and prey.”

December 15, 2013

A Bunch of Birds

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:36 pm

There aren’t too many times when I have occasion to bring my classroom experiences to this blog – this being a nature nature as opposed to a human nature endeavor. As an occasional substitute teacher, however, there are times when I see the two worlds collide. For instance, there was the incident from last month when a Mallard Duck kept the children of Raisinville Elementary at bay. All were forced to use the lower elementary playground because a lonely, and somewhat aggressive, mallard drake was attempting to enter the school doors adjacent to the upper Playground. When the fowl suddenly appeared in the lower elementary playground I was forced to stand between it and the children as they cavorted about. The thing nipped at my pant legs a few times but there were no further incidents.

There was also the “rolly polly” incident in a Kindergarten class and numerous “fly in the room” affairs, but the most recent involved a bunch of birds and a 3rd/4th grade class. We were finishing up on our math discussion (involving the arrangement of truffles in a box – half of the time required explaining what a truffle was) when a huge flock of Starlings appeared in the snowy courtyard outside the windows. Some began plucking dried fruit from the berry laden Crabapple tree as others gleaned seeds from the sun-melted strip of grass along the base of the wall adjacent to the opposite wing of the building.

There was no way to ignore them, so I opted to redirect attention from math to a teachable moment in natural history. The kids rushed to the window without hesitation.  I asked that they should simply observe the birds and see what they were doing – this they did, but not quietly. All started chirping with delight whenever the flock performed one of their explosive flight maneuvers. The chunky darkish birds lifted from the ground, cart-wheeled in the air, and re-settled on a new patch of grass accompanied by an inside chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs.”  On several occasions, a single bird, misjudging its angle of flight, would gently bounce off the window and the class would respond with loud laughter. It was like watching a silent movie with live action and the kids were enjoying it.

After the action subsided, we talked (er, I mean discussed) the situation. They noticed that the birds were like little crows with speckles. Some caught glimpses of reflected purple or blue and others noted that the birds were pulling berries from the tree and flying in synchrony, without using the actual word. When told that the flock was feeding on grass and weed seeds in the exposed patches most recalled seeing them pecking at the ground. It was only after the observational part was bantered about that the word “Starling” was used to identify the birds. In this case “who” they were was less important than “what” they were doing (elementary my dear Watson).

With the onset of harsher weather conditions the local Starlings have been clustering into massive winter flocks. Such gatherings serve a protective function. Sheer force of numbers and the dazzle effect of continual motion will keep even the most patient of Cooper’s Hawks on edge. The elementary flock was one of dozens I have seen over the past week alone. Nary an ornamental crab or plot of open grass is safe from assault. Of particular note, the sun-warmed bases of the larger trees in my yard have been hit several times.

The ground foraging behavior of individual birds consists of probing and leaf flipping. Using their long pointy beaks, they investigate every possible location. Both seeds and hibernating insects are eagerly gobbled up. When a whole group is so engaged there is barely a square inch of ground left unturned or unharvested.

 

As I noted earlier, the kids in my classroom were impressed by the speckled nature of the courtyard flock. Winter Starlings are completely different birds from summer Starlings. They are the same birds but look vastly different due to their spotty nature and dark bills. Many of the birds are young-of-the-year with a pale brown background.

As we finished the discussion portion of our classroom Starling segment, another bird banged into the window and the kids loudly returned to the window. The teacher returned to the room about this time (I was on a half-day assignment) to see her class in chaotic mode. Once assessed of the situation she laughed and nodded in agreement. “This is probably the most fun this class has had in some time,” she said.

December 8, 2013

Ladybugs Do Not Feed on People

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:49 am

Far be it from me to state the obvious, but not all Ladybugs are ladies nor are they bugs. They are beetles (true bugs are half-wing insects such as stinkbugs) which use both the men’s and the ladies bathrooms. To be a male ladybug is akin to being a boy named Sue. According to tradition, the name originated in medieval times to honor the crop protecting abilities of these aphid-eating insects. They were viewed as gifts from the Virgin Mary and thus named “Bugs of our Lady.” Later shortened to Ladybugs, the name stuck.

As far as I know, there are no church parishes named “Our Lady of the Bugs” in existence, but I would not have any problems attending mass at such a church. Over the course of human history, Ladybugs have always been painted in a positive manner. From “Ladybug ladybug fly away home” to “Bishop bishop Barnaby” they have long been a part of childhood rhyme. I’ve yet to see a Halloween without at least a few kids dressed up as Ladybugs and have never have seen a child attired as a Dung Beetle. Adult gardeners still appreciate their pest controlling presence and deliberately release them by the thousands (ladybugs not dung beetles).

There is no one species of Ladybug. There are at least 60-70 species in North America alone. Only one has a bad name, and we’ll get to that in a minute. I recently plucked a frigid little Twice-stabbed Lady Beetle off my sliding glass door. A black Ladybug with two circular red spots, this insect was probably seeking shelter under my siding shingles and was temporarily stifled by the sub-freezing temperature.  Come to think of it, I will now have to call this the Twice-mentioned Ladybug because I already featured this species in a previous blog (April 2012).

I did turn the creature over to reveal the compact form of these beetles – something I did not do in my earlier posting. True to the color code expressed on their elytra (hard outer wing covers), they have a black body accented by a smart red abdomen.

As a rule, ladybugs such as the Twice-stabbed Twice-mentioned type are still held in high esteem, but their reputation has been tainted by the activities of the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (or MALB for short). Asian Lady Bugs, in fact, bring out some very odd literary and social behavior in humans who are once-bitten twice shy.

Identifying a MALB seems to be a relatively simple process if you accept the internet as your guide. According to on-line literature, native ladybugs are orange with 4-6 spots and MALBs are burnt-orange with 16-18 spots. Of course natives such as the Twice-stabbed , which are black with only two spots, and the 7-spotted Ladybug (with seven spots believe it or not) screw up such simplicity. Add to this the fact that MALBs come with a multiplicity of shading and spotting options. Individuals within any grouping will have anywhere from zero spots to 20 or more – backed by yellow orange to burnt orange coloring. If your ladybug has a whole lot of spots, say 8 or more, then you can say that is a MALB with 67.5 % accuracy (see beginning photo).

An invasive species, the MALB isn’t really all that bad. They eat aphids and perform the same beneficial duties as their native counterparts but because they bite, stink, and swarm they are black-listed. The worse thing that anyone can truly say about them is that they offer discomfort. They will take a nip of human skin or exude a noxious fluid from their leg joints if handled roughly, but that is a defensive thing. Advice given at one website advises handling Asian Ladybugs “with extreme caution” surely overstates the case. One handles dynamite and nuclear wastes with extreme caution. But another website declares, in all seriousness, that “Ladybugs do not feed on people” so this should set our minds at ease.

Perhaps the most obnoxious of MALB traits is their propensity to invade houses in the fall when they seek over-wintering shelters. Sometimes millions of them can find their way into our attics. Shifting outside temperatures often force them into our living spaces. You’d think, by the reports, that we are due for another Alfred Hitchcock movie replacing the birds with the bugs. “A huge swarm enveloped my house last fall,” claimed one writer, “causing me to fall off the porch and break my shoulder.”  OMG, lock down the shutters and brace for the MALB invasion sent down by our Virgin Mother!

Normally whenever pesky insects are involved, pesticides are called for. In the case of Asian Ladybugs, however, this is not advised even by most bug control companies. “Warning: Pesticides are poisonous” states an official web source as if we didn’t know that already. I was just pouring myself a bowl of hot pesticides for lunch when I read this shocking revelation and was forced to put it outside for the cats to eat.

How does one control these things, then? Are we to allow them to bother us with impunity? The answer indeed may well be “yes” unless you take the best advice gleaned from web sources. Although ignoring them or putting up with occasional problems is one answer, vacuuming appears to be the best response to home invading ladybugs.  Suck them up and toss them out into the snow to freeze to death. If you do take this route I would suggest that you rush down to the Our Lady of the Bugs chapel and pray for forgiveness afterwards.

December 1, 2013

Poor Man’s Pine

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:14 pm

There seems to be every reason in the world to overlook Red Cedars. They are exceedingly common, grow in waste habitat, are prickly and very un-friendly to the touch, and lack the grace and symmetry of other evergreens. Although this is hardly the plant’s fault, even the name is misleading because they are not Cedars at all. They don’t even produce cones in the proper sense of the word. But, having laid all this out, I would have to counter by saying that all these “faults” are actually the admirable traits of a tough workingman’s tree. As long as Red Cedars are in your face you’d might as well acknowledge them.

This is a good time of year to do so. Nature is pulling back her troops and our outdoor walks are often devoid of animal excitement.  Winter evergreens, because they remain clothed in greenery, stand out amongst their naked deciduous neighbors. What would Christmas, and the month of December, be without them? Well, it would still be Christmas no matter what, but you get my meaning.

The Red Cedars are evergreens – ugly ones to be sure, but still evergreens. In form they are ragged, lop-sided, and decidedly un-Christmas Tree like. They are not Cedars, but actually members of the Juniper clan. Scientifically they are called Juniperus virginiana and you can’t argue with SCIENCE. The root words (pun not intended) basically mean “youthful and productive.” You could argue that the name means evergreen and thus Red Cedars are the original evergreen. There would be no one to argue that point with, but so what. The other part of the scientific name means “from Virginia” which merely indicates the location where it was first described.

If you glance at the lowly junipers growing next to your front porch you’ll get a better understanding of the typical Juniper profile. The fact that red Cedars strive to be wild trees, rather than domesticated shrubs, is an admirable thing. Red Cedars do the “tree thing” quite well. The trees are slow growing and can live for hundreds of years if allowed. Their tightly grained reddish wood (thus the “Red” Cedar part) is very tough and aromatic. Its oily insect and rot-resisting nature suits it well for making cedar chests and fence posts.

Because Juniper berries are used to flavor gin, the odor of Red Cedar foliage and berries might remind some of you alcohol minded individuals of cocktail parties.  If so, I would recommend shoving a clump of prickly juniper branches into your mouth. You may find it preferable to drinking a martini or a gin ‘n tonic. Since Drano is a far better substitute for either of these beverages, you needn’t destroy any Red Cedars in order to get the full effect.

Technically junipers, and therefore Red Cedars, do not have berries. They are cone-bearing. The cones, however, are very berry-like so we might be getting into a meaningless conversation on this one (that is unless you are consuming gin at the time – in which case all meaningless conversations become profound).  Red Cedar cones are blue, blushed with a waxy coating, and fleshy. They pop under gentle finger pressure and contain anywhere from one to three seeds – just like berries.  As wildlife feed they have minimal value although seed-eating, alcoholic tending, birds will probe for the seeds.

Only the female trees dress up for the Christmas season because only they produce cones.  A blue-speckled winter Red Cedar tree has a festive holiday appearance. Both sexes can produce another ornament of sorts and this one is worth seeking. Large kidney shaped (and kidney colored) galls will begin to appear on some trees in mid-summer and will be fully grown by the time winter rolls around. These growths are hard and woody with a dimpled surface much like that of a golf ball. Caused by a fungus, the galls are one of two different expressions of something called Cedar Apple Rust.

Red Cedar and Hawthorn Trees (haw apples) are shared hosts in the life cycle of the impossibly named Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae. You’ll recognize the Red Cedar’s scientific name in the name of the fungus. Over-wintering in the Red-Cedar galls, the fungus sprouts in the springtime. Long gelatinous icicles ooze from each dimple and eventually produce airborne spores. These spores infect the leaves and fruit of hawthorns and create rusty leaf spots. The Cedars are re-infected the following summer via the spores produced on the hawthorn growths and on ad-infinitum. Neither host is truly damaged in the process.

 

The fascinating part of this discussion (if indeed there is any fascinating part about it) is that the Cedar Apple fungus cannot overwinter on a hawthorn. It must migrate to the safety of the Red Cedar in order to survive the season. But, it cannot sustain itself on the Cedar for very long so must continually jump ship in order to stay alive. Therefore the rust remains “youthful and productive.” And, further therefore and on ad-infinitum we have come full circle in this discussion of the youthful and productive tree from Virginia.

The Red Cedar may not be pretty, but has a pretty good story to tell to those who stop (and put down their martini glasses) to listen.

 

 

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