Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 27, 2014

Bat in a Can Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:50 am

In short, a bat in a can can a.) revive itself from deep hibernation and b.) relocate to a better location on its own.  I received just such a canned bat last week and can now attest to the veracity of these two statements. A good friend called me last week after his attic water pipes froze and burst. The water flowed down through several levels in one of his rental units and melted a portion of the ceiling of the upstairs apartment. He didn’t call to ask me to fix it. I am a duct tape type of guy and he is a professional handyman.

Apparently the damage upset one the residents and he thought I might be interested. He was right. The resident in question was a bat (the apartment was un-occupied by humans at the time). It apparently came down into the room seeking a way to get the heck out of that unfriendly joint. Not knowing what to do with it, but not wanting to kill it, my friend coaxed the little beast into an old coffee can and put a loose plastic bag over the top to secure it. It was now in his unheated breezeway at home, he said, and was mine if I wanted it.  Of course, I did.

I didn’t actually connect with my friend, and his bat, until three days later (it’s a long story about a missed phone message etc. etc.) The canned creature was still alive when I stopped by to pick it up. A peek inside revealed a Big Brown Bat. It was torpid (sluggish from hibernation) and barely took notice of our probing fingers. We laughed over the real need to cover the top of the can – after all it wasn’t likely to go flying off in 10 degree weather…right?  So, I brought the frozen orphan home to my un-heated back porch and pondered its future.

My plan was to wait until the temperatures rose up into the 30’s and let him go. It is not unusual for Big Brown Bats to fly about in mid-winter seeking new shelters (especially when their old ones suffer from busting pipeitis). Unfortunately the prospect for the coming week was for a continuation of the arctic blast with no January thaw in sight.  That first night was to dip into the single digits and I worried about my little charge. For a second I thought about popping him into the frig but could not muster the ability to tell my wife, although I’m SURE she’d understand but… As it turned out the issue resolved itself without my sleeping out on the couch.

The bat was gone by the next morning. As the temperatures plummeted, he scrambled up the side of the can, pushed aside the bag cover and flittered away. Although I believe he secreted himself in one of the many niches and gaps between the house and the porch, he may have found exit to the outside world through numerous egress points (it is a very unfinished, as well as unheated, porch).  In other words, Big Browns are not helpless refrigerator magnets when in hibernation mode.

Cave dwelling bats need the stable 50-some degree environs found in caverns while B.B.B’s have adapted to shifting winter temps. Cave bats tend to cluster while Big Browns usually go it alone. They are very tolerant of cold and are one of the few bats that can afford to hibernate in drafty northern attics.

When entering hibernation mode they dramatically lower both body temperature and metabolism to reduce their energy requirements but oddly enough rarely stay in such a state for more than 3 or 4 days at a time. They wake themselves frequently in response to changing temperature and as a matter of habit. At least one study showed that these wide-awake periods last 5 hours on the average – which allows enough time to shift about or re-locate if necessary. One study even proved, and I am grossly summarizing here, that if a bat stays in a torpid state for too long it will get “stupid.” They need to wake up and restore their “synaptic synapses.”  I’m not sure there is a human parallel to draw here, so I won’t attempt it.

In retrospect it is amazing that my bat survived its multi-day sub-freezing can experience at all. The ideal hibernation temperature for such a creature ranges between 37 degrees – 68 degrees F. The air temperature has to be above freezing for this hibernation thing to work. When ambient temperatures dip below 32 degrees F the bat can raise its body temperature, wake up, and move or it can increase metabolism, stay in hibernation, and make up the difference. Either choice burns up fat stores but trumps the alternative which is freezing to death.

It’s a good thing that I took a few photos right away when I initially brought the Big Brown Bat inside. I was planning to try for a few better shots on the following morning. The bat, however, obviously had better plans. Once again I am humbled by what nature knows and I don’t.

January 21, 2014

Back ‘N Forth, Forth ‘N Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:36 pm

For a Red Squirrel there is no event of greater importance than that of protecting one’s stash.  Before I elaborate on that topic, please allow me a few lines to defend myself.

Yes, I am aware that I have either directly or indirectly referred to squirrels in many of my recent posts. Yes, I am aware that this might suggest to some that I am spending way too much time on the subject and that I must be lapsing into prolonged obsessive bouts of rocking and shouting out the names of nut bearing trees.  You needn’t worry. It is the naturalist’s prerogative to dwell upon a subject to near obsession – heck, Charles Darwin spent a lifetime investigating barnacles. You have to admit that squirrels are far more fascinating than barnacles. And, I must remind you, there are no barnacles in my yard. The plain truth of the matter is that the squirrels in my yard are so active that they simply beg attention.

Now, shall we continue? First, a summary. During the recent Polar Latex… er, Vortex…the Fox Squirrels enjoyed free reign of the yard. They boldly treated themselves to the Red Squirrel walnut cache under the shed.  After the Playtex…er,vortex …passed, the Red Squirrels emerged from hiding and were hopping mad at this breach of squirrel etiquette. The little red devils took immediate action to protect their stash.


Rather than launch a “Red Dawn” attack against their giant cousins, the Red Squirrels chose a much more subtle approach. They began to systematically relocate a portion of their stash to a new location. While one positioned itself as a lookout on the center Maple tree, the other acted as the nut courier. This top secret activity was conducted in the full light of day due to fact that the squirrel’s night vision goggles were destroyed by the intense cold of the Solar, I mean Polar…Never mind.

Over and over again the nut courier ran the route between the walnut cache and the new location which was somewhere over by the creek.  The tiny squirrel covered the distance, about a hundred feet or so, in record time – bee-lining from creek to maple, then maple to shed and back. A single walnut was carried each time.

Apart from the amusement of it all, I was also able to capture motion with multiple freeze frames. Red Squirrels bound when they are running and so frequently become air born with all fours off the ground (Eadweard Muybridge would be proud of my photo evidence of this). Those who are familiar with squirrel tracks know that the front foot impressions are behind the back foot impressions.  To those of you who didn’t know this, you now know this. At the end of a leap, the paired front feet make ground contact first and the critter’s momentum carries the hind feet forward where they strike the ground and launch the animal into another leap.

I can’t say how long my observed squirrel had been nut-couriering before I spotted it, but I can say that it performed at least ten more round trips before stopping. The lookout squirrel spotted me peering out the window and sounded the alarm. This ended the mission and the squirrels went “dark.” I went back into the house, began rocking back and forth, and started to continuously recite words that rhymed with Vortex.


January 10, 2014

Picture a Polar Vortex

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:29 am

First came the snow – lots of it. This was followed by blasts of fierce arctic wind and temperatures plunging into the negative double digit range. The weather folk called it a Polar Vortex and gave us a terrifying term to replace what would normally be called a “cold snap.” Partly as a victim of cabin fever and partly because of guilt for having it, I was strangely drawn to document some of this and prowled around the county seeking scenes of stark whiteness, crisp blueness, misty ice fogginess, and animal toughness. I was not disappointed on any front.

I here present some of my results in the form of an annotated photo essay. Let’s just call these “Cold Snaps” and chuckle softly to ourselves at the extreme cleverness of that title. O.K., at least allow me to chuckle softly at my delusional fever-driven cleverness incited by extreme conditions.

There is something visually beautiful about wild winter weather. The storm rolled in like a freight train and blanketed the county with a thick layer of snow. Just down the road, the winds blew so hard across the fields that even the roadside telephone poles had to submit to their ferocity. Never mind that the pole in the second shot had been leaning northward for years.


South of town, the waters of the quarry refused to freeze over when the arctic blast followed on the heels of the snow. Boiling like a frigid kettle of dry ice, the relatively warm waters generated an ice fog which coated everything with sparkling crystals. It was minus 8 degrees when I took this snap.

Although most of the river was frozen over, fast open stretches of the Raisin joined forces with the quarry waters and resisted the freeze. Ice fogs made for some stunning sunrise views when the shoreline Cottonwoods cast their shadows on the ghostly veil. Canada Geese dealt with the situation by bundling together, tucking their heads deep into their back feathers, and waiting out the stark cold nights.


A lone Bald Eagle surveyed the scene from the south side of the smoky river. She is one of several that make the rounds.  About the only thing that restricts the distribution of winter eagles is the presence of open water. As fishers and duck hunters they will congregate wherever their prey can be found and captured. Based on the dirty white head and eye stripe, she has seen 3 winters and is now engaged in her fourth (clothed in the so-called Basic III plumage of a 3 ½ year old).  Is she a she? Well, I really don’t know but am 50% sure. It’s a shame to call such a majestic bird an “it.”

The bright red butt of a House Finch added a dash of welcome color in the Arctic landscape. Puffed up against the elements, this bird was waiting its turn at a birdfeeder. They say that the intensity of the red on a male bird is a by-product of the pigments of the food they obtain just prior to their molt.  The dull colored females deliberately select the brightest males as their mates. From the looks of it, this House Finch will have to beat back the chicks with a stick (if, that it, he survives until Spring).

Across the road from the finches, a flock of Tree Sparrows gleaned seeds from the field plants lining the farm field. I believe the temperature at the time was around minus 2, but I doubt they noticed. Tree sparrows are Arctic visitors who nest in the Tundra regions of the high north. They over-winter in the balmy setting of the winter Midwest and make their living in the weedy fields and around the domestic bird feeders of the suburbs. Although sparrows as a group can be hard to identify, the dark breast spot, rusty crown and eye stripe, and bi-colored bill are definitive Tree sparrow traits.


I end my photo safari where I began with the squirrels of my back yard. My previous blog dwelled upon this subject and ended with some thoughts on the Red Squirrel. In short, you’ll recall that the Fox Squirrels have been braving the weather and eating all of the Red Squirrel’s carefully stored nuts. The Reds didn’t emerge from hiding until yesterday and – as predicted – they were ticked. One of them, pictured in the second shot, ran wildly from limb to limb creating mini-blizzards as it knocked piles of snow off the branches. It was visibly upset and I shudder to think what it will do if it catches the offending Fox Squirrel (looking rather guilty in the first shot).

The Polar Vortex may be over but the Squirrel Vortex is back.

January 6, 2014

Hairs on Their Chinny Chin Chin

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:56 pm

As I sit to write this blog entry it is as a captive of the snowstorm of 2014 (perhaps THE snowstorm of 2014 if time judges it so).  My view of the world has been basically from the inside looking out and has been so for several weeks due to the bitter cold. From this perspective, the yard squirrels have been the primary subject of prolonged observations and thus the victim of my thinking. One can never be disappointed by squirrels – nor can the word “squirrel” be uttered in seriousness. “Quoth the Squirrel Nevermore” has a far different connotation than Raven quothing etc.

It is a basic fact of nature that squirrels are fuzzier during the winter. That should go without saying, but since it is my habit to say things that don’t need saying I will elaborate on that concept a bit. Even though the Red Squirrels adamantly claim my yard, Fox Squirrels will bravely trespass until they are driven off by their sparky little cousins.  Both creatures are currently at their fuzzy best.

This morning a single Fox Squirrel nibbled upon one of the Red Squirrel’s walnuts under the cover of the blizzard. Bundled under a thick coat of yellow brown fur and equipped with fur gloves, he looked far more uncomfortable than he actually was. I, of course, can say this because I was looking out from a snug warm house. But still, although it looks as if he were protecting his nuts against the biting cold, there was ample indication that he was well insulated with fur and fat. The fresh blown snowflakes remained un-melted upon his brow as he fondled his prize in the low teen temperatures.

The Red Squirrels have been scarce for the last few days. They tend to sit tight during rough weather and restrict their activity to mid-day appearances. No doubt they will stir, visit their cache of walnuts under the shed and curse all Fox Squirrels when they discover that one of their precious nuts is missing. But let’s stick to hair here.

Both animals go through annual molts. Other than overall hairiness, a winter Fox Squirrel looks basically the same as its summer self in terms of color and pattern. They molt their fur once a year, including their tail, in early spring. It takes about a month to complete the job.

Red Squirrels, on the other nut…er, hand, take on quite a different appearance when the hiver blanc descends. Reds molt twice a year. The Spring molt progresses backward from the head and ends at the rump (see here a perfect example of this from my June 12, 2009 blog). Summer reds have a sleek shot-haired red-brown coat and a black racing stripe dividing the white belly form the brown sides. Their ears are scantily furred.  I here provide a few summer images (below and here) to warm your winter soul.


The Fall molt, that which turns the animal into a winter beast, occurs in the opposite direction and includes the tail hairs. A winter Red Squirrel (see below) is grizzled with thick gray fur and basically lacks the black racing stripe. The reddish tail tone continues up the center of the back. Prominent ear tufts top off the winter décor. About the only thing that doesn’t change is that mischievous look which gives the impression that the creature is about to do – or has already done – something bad.


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