Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 22, 2014

Cowbirds Amongst the Cows

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:37 pm

There is little reason to celebrate Cowbirds, but the sight of thousands of ‘em does invoke some small sense of awe. Most cowbirds migrate south for the winter and you wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect to see any until winter has released its grip. On a recent trip down the road to Calder Dairy for some farm fresh cream and whiffs of bovine dung, I was amazed to see a huge flock of these blackbirds hanging about the place.

The pines adjacent to the parking lot were adorned with their shimmering black and brown bodies and the cow barn was equally packed with feathered life. It was bitter cold and very wintery. There was nary a touch of spring in the air yet the cowbirds were present and very much accounted for. The scene was rendered slightly magical by gentle falling snow and the bubbling sounds generated by a thousand little throats.

Being early February, it was possible that this was a very early migrant flock. I do know that the birds weren’t there back in January. An even mixture of Starlings peppered the flock, however, so it had the make-up of a generic off-season blackbird flock. Birds of a black feather do flock together during the cold months.

Technically these birds are called Brown-headed Cowbirds and even a cursory glance at a male bird proves this to be an appropriate name. Personally, and I have stated this before, I believe the brown heads result from all black birds following closely behind load-dumping cattle. Of course, this is not true but it provides a great memory trick for name recognition. Why anyone would need a memory trick to remember the name of Brown-headed Cowbirds is beyond me but then again so much of the world is beyond me. The original cows followed by these birds were Great Plains Bison and they gradually switched to domestic cattle when they replaced the wild bovines. The domestic hind ends also allowed the cowbirds to travel east and establish themselves on the Great Plains of Monroe County, Mich.

Female cowbirds are all brown – which means that they are either completely covered with cow dung or simply un-encumbered by the need for black feathers. No matter what, the females are possibly the most generic looking bird on the planet. A good way to identify a female Cowbird is the complete lack of any distinguishing features. Remember that cowbirds are nest parasites that need to sneak into and out of other bird nests in order to lay their eggs. You do not find nest parasites adorned with magnificent crimson crests or plumed tails.


There is always plenty of feed lying around a farm. Apart from feeding the livestock this also provides a horn of plenty for the wintering poop birds. The Calder Farm would be as close to paradise as an earthbound bird could expect would it not be for the presence of a wandering source of anarchy in the form of a black cat. I’m sure there are plenty of loose felines around the farm, but one of them caught my eye.

Normally I would rather throw my camera into a fresh pile of cow poo than use it to take a picture of a cat. I was temporarily fascinated by this feline. It sauntered by as if on a Sunday walk, even pausing to “clean itself” in that glorious cat manner. There were several drops of rich red blood frozen on its whiskers indicating the source of it latest meal. To say it looked guilty would be an understatement. The winter feedlot birds, including the plentitude of cowbirds, are a constant source of personal satisfaction.

February 15, 2014

Fowls in the Winter Stream: Part 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:48 pm

Saw Bills and Hoodies

The mergansers are the most unusual looking ducks swimming the River Raisin this season.  Although technically “ducks”, they are not defined by the typically flat bills of that group. Mergansers are fish eating birds and their beaks are elongated into perfect piscine grabbers. This adaptation goes so far as to provide them with teeth. Yes, I know, birds don’t – and can’t – have true teeth (or lips for that matter) but can have tooth-like projections along the edge of the beak. They are succinctly called “saw bills” by hunters.  Mergansers exhibit this trait to such perfection that their beaks look exactly like those of the spotted gar – a very toothy fish-eating fish. They are fish ducks with fish faces!

Two species of mergansers are operating in the open waters of the Raisin as well as an equivalent section on the Huron River in Flat Rock: Common and Hooded Mergansers. The smallest ones, the Hoodies, are among the flashiest of the tribe and of all waterfowl. Only the Woodies (Wood Ducks) out-do the Hoodies in this department. This is, of course, up for argument …but not here.

Both male and female birds are present and both are worthy of admiration. Female birds, typical of their sex, are subtly shaded and their heads are wonderfully topped with glorious tufts of “hair.” It is a mark of my age to compare them with Phyllis Diller but I realize this has no meaning to the Jimmy Fallon generation. Since I’ve promised myself to limit my allusions to such anachronistic things such as typewriters, dial phones, and eight track tapes I will let a frazzled paint brush serve as my un-dated metaphor.  Oddly enough, paintbrushes have been around for thousands of years and are extremely anachronistic yet are still used daily.


Male Hooded Mergansers are magnificent beings. Resplendent in pin-striped maroon, black and white body décor the guys have pliable crests. Adjustable according to mood or behavior, the crest – or hood – can be laid back in the manner of wind-swept wheat or fully expressed as a full white fan. When diving, the crest is lowered to create an aerodynamic shape for underwater work (they pursue small fish like feathered seals).

Above the water surface, the crest is fanned out. When alerted to danger, or used as a courtship tool, it is opened to its full extent. One might get the impression that these guys have really large heads whenever the crest is fully hooded, but is mostly composed of air. Indeed, it might be tempting for female readers to state that this is a natural male condition but by this statement I mean to say that the bird’s head is actually very small and that the feathers are very long.  They are pin-head fowl. When side-lit in the morning sun, this trait is clearly displayed.


Larger Common Mergansers are mixed in with the Hoodies. Commonly called Gooseanders , these birds are nearly twice the size of their Hooded cousins.  I’ve only seen the females this winter. These birds are mostly gray backed with crested rusty heads. When resting (or possibly meditating) they depress their crest tightly in line with their head and neck profile. When actively hunting, however, this crest is opened in wild glory.


The fishing behavior of these mergansers is delightful to watch. They swim against the current and regularly dip their faces beneath the surface for a peek. While so engaged they appear like snorkelers cruising for seashells. Upon spotting their potential victim they plunge into the drink and chase their finny prey (see below & here).

Although we are fixating upon their sleek above-water appearance, the mergansers are rendered ungainly by their long legs and huge webbed feet. Their legs are located far past the mid-line of their bodies – an arrangement perfect for darting underwater. Unfortunately they are unable to walk very far on land or ice due to this hobbling arrangement.

Given the above foot and life facts, it would be easy to suspect that mergansers are 100% tied to the liquid element but that would be wrong. These birds are tree nesters, believe it or not.  They nest in tree cavities. In another few months they will be heading to the northern forests to raise a new generation of sawbills in the trees.

February 10, 2014

Fowls in the Winter Stream

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:32 pm

About the only open water available these days is to be found in the flowing waters of the River Raisin where it slips past the rocky matrix in midtown and below the step dams located further upstream. This liquid resource acts as a magnet for waterfowl and a wide variety of frigid fowl are attracted to the river at these points. Although a huge number of Canada Geese and Mallards dominate this crowd, a surprising number of divers are in evidence. Diverse divers in da river are delightful (wow, wasn’t that incredibly clever).

Because these diverse divers are so de…fascinating, I’d like to spend a few blog posts on them. So, consider this a warning that unless some dazzling natural phenomenon interferes – such as a wandering Polar Bear in downtown Temperance – you will be seeing lots of duck pictures. Let this also serve as a warning that these are incredible looking creatures and, unlike a rather bland looking Polar Bear in a Snowstorm, their bold patterns and antics make for some de…fascinating images.

Red heads and Blue bills

Quite a few Redheads can be seen bucking the current and diving. They are well-named only if you consider the males and ignore the females (which is the case of virtually all birds with the exception of the Belted Kingfisher). The guys have bright round reddish heads atop a black breast and dark gray back while the gals are adorned in subtle shades of brown. The bright yellow eyes of the males give them a look of perpetual surprise – which is, come to think of it, the basic male look in all species.

The winter flock consists of an equal number of males and females, but they are not yet paired for the upcoming season. Like all winter ducks, staying warm is not an issue due to their thick layer of water-repellant down. For now, their only concern is to find food. They plunge head first into the current and seek aquatic plants and invertebrates off the bottom. In the case of the mid-town river the overall depth is only a foot or so and this trip is not a long one. The birds generally bob to the surface a few yards ahead of their original dive location and allow the current to deliver them back to the starting point for another dive.

Although the Red-heads have blue bills, their river partners the Bluebills have cornered the naming market in this area.  Technically they are called Scaups and even more technically they are classified as either Greater or Lesser Scaups.  Duck hunters, who are responsible for the Bluebill name, usually don’t differentiate between the two species but will use bill terminology to divide them. Greaters have “broad-bills” (and are so called) and Lessers have narrower bills (called just plain bluebills).

I’ve only seen a few male birds in the river and frankly I can’t easily tell which “bill” they represent. From a distance they are chunky black and white fowl with dark heads and butts, vermiculated backs (barred), and bright blue bills. Like the Red-heads, they also dive with gusto but specialize on snails and small clams – thus the actual meaning of scaup meaning mussel-eater. So, you see it is not a bad name, but doesn’t offer the flair of the nickname.

In general, the Greater Blue, or Broad-bills, have a rounded head with a greenish cast to it. The Lesser Blue-bills have an oval shaped head with a little crest or bump to mark the high point. Their head coloration tends toward the purplish side. Now, the lessers are a bit smaller than the greaters , but this is only apparent when the two are in a mixed group.

I will not get into this any deeper other than to say that a single bird I spotted at the Huron River in Flat Rock (see above and here) was definitely a Lesser Scaup based on the previously mentioned traits. Two bobbing sleepers in the Raisin at the foot of the step dam in Dundee, however, looked to be Greaters – even though they didn’t exactly look so great (see below) nor am I going to stake my reputation on it.

The Dundee Dam ducks were fun to watch because they were in resting mode. Head tucked over the back with the bill rammed deep into the contour feathers, they swam around the rapids with effortless impunity without changing their peaceful pose. One of them became alerted as it spotted me and took a prolonged gander (ducks can gander) in my direction but it soon figured out that I wasn’t about to jump into the water and was not a threat.

Before resuming the resting position this little duck stretched, opened its mouth, and stuck out its pink tongue. It appeared to be laughing at the cold and enjoying its winter life on the roiling river.  “It’s a duck’s life for me and I’m as happy as can be.”

February 1, 2014

An Audacious Arachnid

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:10 pm

On the really really cold days, he snuggles deep within his silken snuggie bag. He peeps out from the folds, like a dog watching traffic through parted window curtains, whenever the thermometer rises into the teens. On days soaring into the 20’s and 30’s he will come out completely and walk about the immediate framework of his shelter. So goes the winter life of my resident jumping spider living in my back porch (the very same un-heated, un-finished back porch featured in my last post).

All teary eyed Charlotte’s Web readers know that many spiders package their next generation as silk-encased eggs and die before the onset of winter. Some spiders do overwinter as adults, however, and my porch mate is a prime example of this tactic. To say that this hairy little dude is hibernating would be a miscarriage of the word. Technically cold-blooded arthropods don’t hibernate – they enter diapause. Because my little charge is a male, I suppose you could call his a state of menopause but that term has already been taken (why is it, by the way, women go through MENapause -shouldn’t it be FEM or WOMANapause?). At any rate, diapause implies a “pausing” of activity but, based on my observations, this is anything but the truth. They are quite active throughout the season.

The spider in question is a Phidippus audax, otherwise known as the Bold Jumping Spider. In case you are wondering, the Latin species name audax literally means “audacious”, or bold if you will. Apart from actually being bold, these spiders are identifiable by their iridescent green chelicera (jaws), hairy black bodies, and orange-spotted backs. The males, averaging 10mm in length, are smaller than the females and possess two tiny horns, or tufts, above their main eyes. Thus the reason I am calling my spider a guy. If he comes out on Super Bowl Sunday then I’ll be positive of this.

The chosen wintering spot for this bold little beast is a woven two-layered silk bag built within an open square of a metal cooking grid. This item functions a spacer for a small aluminum camp kettle during the summer, but the grid dimensions make it a perfect site for Phidippus in the fall and winter. Bold Jumping spiders use their audacious silk producing skills to construct chamber nests for various purposes. Females weave protective bags for eggs; growing individuals construct them for skin-shedding periods, and wintering adults construct them as Arctic sleeping bags. Several rows down and over from the wintering spot, a shed skin indicates that another – perhaps the same guy – used this square as a shedding chamber earlier in the fall (see below).

As I stated earlier, the only time I found this spider completely “paused” was during those hard freeze weeks when the temperatures crashed into the single digits and below. At any other time he was up and out and very alert. It became a challenge to photograph this fellow because he would spot me and retreat whenever I entered the room. I had to sneak upon him as carefully as if it were stalking a wild turkey. I frequently had to resort to my telephoto options!

Jumping spiders have excellent vision. Like most spiders they have four pairs of eyes. The central pair is huge and gives the critters a Jeep-like appearance. Apparently these main eyes are used for primary vision and the extra eyes (including a set on the back of the “head”) for light/dark indications. Thanks to painstaking research it has been determined that Jumpers see most of the world as a fuzzy out-of-focus green place. They do not have binocular vision. Instead, according to Takashi Nagata, of the Osaka City University, they have a four layered retina. The first layer creates a sharp image and the deeper layers register different intensities of UV and green light. The close items become blurry and thus allow for a comparative view for distance judging within each single eye.

Based on this analysis I often appeared as a scary blurry green object in the face of my saltatorial friend. After seeing what this would actually look like in his eyes (see here), I have resolved not to attempt to sneak up on my winter spider for the remainder of the season lest I drive him into a deep diapause from which he may never escape.

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