Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 30, 2014

Out of the Ends of Turkeys

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:28 pm
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I spotted a group of Wild Turkeys sneaking about the back woods of a Grand Rapids condo complex on Thanksgiving Day. Although they are totally unaware of the significance of the day and its deadly consequences, they somehow looked more worried than usual. That, of course, is purely a figment of human imagination. As a responsible naturalist, I suppose I should go on with this thread and discuss the importance of the turkey in human culture etc. etc. but I am not feeling responsible at this moment (perhaps it is the dose of triptipaine, or triptoknick-nack, or whatever you call it, that comes from a thanksgiving turkey meal).No, I feel like talking about turkey poo.

Thanksgiving Day Turkeys photo IMG_7308_zps18a34808.jpg

There were several specimens of the kind lying about the place for examination. Unlike their creators, these subjects sat very still for their portraits. As even marginal wild Turkey enthusiasts will tell you, the sex of an individual depositor determines the shape of its deposit. In other words, hen poo is different from gobbler poo. Gobbler and Jake (young males) droppings are “J” shaped while Hen or Jenny (young females) droppings tend to be spiral or just plain piled.
Unfortunately this is not an exact science and it leads to some interesting descriptions when discussed. For instance, male poo is also labeled as “walking cane” or “straight” shaped and females as “curly cued.” One website gets it a_ _ -backwards and attributes the “J” terds to the females. While it appears to be a fact that there is some sexual differentiation in Turkey feces, there is enough gray area between curly cue and j-shaped to create confusion. Diet also determines appearance. A bird eating lots of fruits and green plants will lay down a shapeless poo pile that would make any diarrhea ridden yip-yap dog proud. A good “fun fact” needs to be black and white, but nature rarely allows this. So, in this case it is best to use phrases such as “tend to be” to cover your own a_ _.
It is even funnier to track down some of the explanations offered to explain the difference between gobbler and hen poo. I offer these as someone who does not truly know himself, but is smart enough not to attempt one. One published account basically claims than hens have bigger butts – stretched out from egg-laying -and this creates less constriction and thus looser lay-downs. Given that hens don’t deposit their eggs through their poop chute, this is a problematic theory at best. Some claim that the gals wait longer between “deposit events” and therefore make larger creations when they do doo. The males, on the other hand, just let it go whenever and wherever they feel the need. They also claim that the males perform a little dance when finishing off their pooping event – like putting that final swirl on a soft-serve cone.
Again, allow me to state that I don’t really know anything in this fecal matter, but I would suggest that the latter explanation is wrong because turkey droppings, like all bird droppings, are pee-poop packets. Bird droppings are both No. 1 and No. 2 combined into a neat (or not so neat) package. The white part of the dropping (the uric acid or pee part of the dropping) comes out first as far as I know. This is the part that creates the curl when present. Unfortunately for the “dancing gobbler” school this means that a final twist of the rear would create a curl in the solid, darker portion of the poo – not the white portion. If slow motion photography shows a gobbler doing the dance during the initial, rather than the final, phase of deposition, then I will stand corrected in this matter.

Wild Turkey Doo (Male?) photo IMG_7309_zps058656f7.jpg  Turkey Doo (Male?) photo IMG_7310_zps04ab3013.jpg

I do believe that I’ve irresponsibly beaten this topic into the ground sufficiently to cut it off with a little dance step myself. I can not claim that the turkeys I photographed had anything to do with these droppings because they were old examples and because the birds in question were hens. I leave you with two poo portraits which I would claim to be male deposits – one due to its straightness and the other to its J-hook. Either way, however, this is good sh_ _.

November 23, 2014

Belly-buttoned Snappers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:57 am
Hatchling Snapping Turtle photo IMG_6883_zpscc93f89f.jpg
One of the un-expected sights of late fall, framed within the background of burnt umber oak leaves and the lemon yellow Tamaracks of Northern Michigan, are baby snapping turtles. Such a thing really shouldn’t be unexpected, however. It is true that most baby snappers emerge in late summer and early fall, but a substantial number don’t surface until very late in the season. Some, in fact, overwinter inside their eggs and hatch the following spring.
I guess it’s all about counting backwards. It takes 11-12 weeks of incubation to produce a hatchling turtle. Snapping Turtles females do not attend to their eggs after they are laid so the incubating is performed by Ma Nature and the warmth of her soil. The peak time for adult snappers to lay their eggs is in June (at least in Southern Michigan), but individuals will lay their clutches throughout the summer. Those depositing their eggs in the latter part of August are responsible for the late autumn crop of young snappers. Those who opt to choose later dates (if a wild animal can be said to “opt”) will produce either frozen little turtles or spring babies.

Hatchling Snapping Turtle photo IMG_7012_zps370815cb.jpg

On two consecutive late fall weekends up north, I encountered hatchling snappers. One was lingering in the shallows right at my dock on Dollar Lake and the other was traversing across a sandy hill, headed for the water, in Alpena. Hatchlings like this are distinctive due to their finely sculpted little shells – still soft and pliable at this stage – and their extremely long tails. No other native turtle comes close in the tail length department. I’m guessing this was evolution’s way of making up for the embarrassing lack of bottom shell on this species.

Hatchling Snapping Turtle photo IMG_7011_zps0b7fc3c3.jpg  Hatchling Snapping Turtle photo IMG_6874_zps41cffb16.jpg

All hatchling turtles have a belly button – an umbilical scar indicating where the egg yolk was formally attached. This scar eventually disappears as the scutes of the plastron (lower shell) converge on the growing turtle. In other words, adult turtles do not have belly buttons but babies do – which could make for an interesting true/false question if you wish to trick someone or simply want to be an intolerable pain in the asterisk (just ask “do turtles have belly buttons?” A “No” or “Yes” answer would be equally wrong without explanation). My backyard turtlelet, as well as the sandhill individual, had fresh umbilical scars. They were both about the size of the egg from which they had recently escaped, which was about 1 inch in diameter. Most importantly they both still retained their egg tooth.
Take a good look at my pictures and you’ll notice the egg tooth as a whitish bump located just under their pig-like noses. It gleams like a date night pimple. This temporary structure is believed to assist the emerging turtle to cut open the leathery skin of the shell when hatching. Made of keratin (the same material that constitutes the tough body scales) the egg tooth drops off soon after the hatchling enters the big world.

Hatchling Snapping Turtle photo IMG_7010_zpsfc42690e.jpg

Both of these little fellows are to be celebrated because they have successfully beat the odds so far. Sometimes nearly 90% of a yearly crop of snapper eggs are destroyed by raccoons, skunks, and other nest predators. Hatching is only one of the hurdles that a baby turtle has to clear on the way to adulthood. Since their parents can lay eggs as far as a mile from water, their young must undertake a dangerous overland trip to the nearest water. Crows, foxes, coyotes and all manner of beasts will eat tender young turtles. Even in the “safety” of the water large fish, herons, and even muskrats will feed on the turtles as long as they remain small and their shell soft. Once passing through this initial gauntlet, the rest of a snapper’s life is relatively free of trouble save for automobiles and turtle trappers. At this point they have the potential to turn the predation tables around, although they actually tend toward the herbivorous side of the scale.
My Dollar Lake snapperlet had reached the water on its own by the time I found it. I returned it to the water after subjecting the patient beast to a series of fashion shots. My Alpena hatchling was walking over a patch of open sand and was about as exposed as a turtle could be. The surrounding sand was littered with turtle shell pieces which had been scattered over the surface by nest robbing raccoons. I could not resist posing a fake hatching picture, shown below, before I was finished. Call it artistic license. The actual egg shell remains below the surface within the old nest.
Just to set your mind at ease, I did deliver the creature down a substantial hill to the river before leaving. I’ve no doubt that the next time we meet this belly-buttoned Snapper will be more than happy to bite the hand that once helped it. I would expect nothing less.

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November 15, 2014

One Pic Post: Stiff Upper Lip

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:06 pm
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A few weeks ago I spotted a minor buck – a meager example of a four pointer (actually a three and a half pointer) – approach a small herd of does in a field south of West Branch, MI. The sun was setting and the fellow obviously had high hopes for a wild party night. The big bucks were elsewhere and he was performing a bit of Cervid Carpe Diem. Unfortunately, the gals were not about to allow him to seize their day, or night, for that matter. One by one they scooted away as he approached.
My intention here is not to document the exploits of a frustrated buck and risk embarrassing him back at the dork buck club. Rather, I’d like to focus on one aspect of his behavior called the Flehmen response. Our minor buck frequently stopped to smell the “Eau de Doe” in order to determine the reproductive status of the females surrounding him. He lifted his head up, curled his upper lip into what could be described as an open-mouthed sneer, and held that pose for extended period. He was processing the air-borne pheromones which charged the air with sexual energy.
It is not enough to just sniff the air through the nostrils to detect pheromones. The Flehman response allows for a direct shot of scent laden air to enter the vomeronasal organ (aka Jacobson’s Organ) located between the upper palette and the nasal opening. The nostril openings are closed during this action and the air stream enters via a pair of openings located on the roof of the mouth just behind the lips. Sensory endings in the Jacobson’s Organ are quick to read the phermonal message and relay the information to the buck’s brain. It conveys either a green light or a stop sign for the buck’s aspirations.
All manner of mammals, from cats to horses, perform the Flehman response. In fact, if you have a few minutes and are looking for a laugh, just Google the term “flehman” and you will get a flood of ridiculous smiling horse pictures. A flehmening buck lacks the upper row of front teeth found on horses, so their appearance is slightly less cheesy looking but presents an equaling interesting picture.

November 9, 2014

Down in the Mouth

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 12:02 pm
Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7212_zpsc1f973df.jpg
It was early morning on Dollar Lake and the dawn light highlighted the converging lines of a wake trail out in the icy water. I assumed it was the mark of a muskrat swimming across our end of the lake. The little rodent had been especially busy over the last few days and his antics provided some small entertainment as of late. All muskrats have the habit of raising their tail out of the water when they eat aquatic vegetation. Front paws occupied on the foodstuff, they assume a swayback posture that causes their tail to arch out of the water like a ladle handle. This Dollar Lake ‘rat habitually holds his tail at such a high angle that it appears to be the head of a miniature Lock Ness monster (see below).

Feeding Muskrat photo IMG_7105_zps69295ac2.jpg

Grabbing the binoculars (it was too cold to run out in my pajamas) I scoped the wake-causing creature through the window and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of the expected form of a muskrat, the unexpected lines of an Otter came into focus. This was only the second time I’ve seen this creature in the lake – the last time being a few years ago. Needless to say it was no longer too cold to run out in my pajamas, but I threw on a few layers of clothes anyway.
The Otter performed a periscope move to assess me when I arrived at the end of the dock. It apparently determined that I was harmless and opted to continue as if I weren’t present. Normally otters are fish-eaters but on this morning it was seeking an alternate form of seafood. The thing was crayfish hunting and obviously working a good spot. Over the course of twenty minutes I personally saw him nab at least eight crawdaddies and eat them with great gusto.

Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7186_zps324eb18d.jpg Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7176_zps73fbd74f.jpg

The sequence usually started with a contemplative full body float at the surface. They are long animals – ranging between 31”-51” in length -and appear very snakelike. The tail alone makes up nearly one half the body length. Plunging headfirst into the drink, the creature then dove down and rooted through the bottom debris. Rafts of bubbles marked the underwater search path as it sought the quarry.
If a catch was made, the otter bobbed to the surface and dispatched the prey with wide-mouthed bites. Occasionally rolling over on its back, sea otter style, it often handled the “cray” with nimble front paws. The sun highlighted the pink palette and substantial teeth of the predator as it gnawed away on the mudbug.

Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7217_zps0a355d78.jpg

Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7232_zps959d3921.jpg

Sometimes, instead of immediately eating the crayfish, it swam with it to the Northwest corner of the lake. There it dove under at a spot near the shore where it probably entered a bank burrow and finished the meal there. Oddly enough this was the same location where the muskrat also dives under and I wonder if the two were sharing this entrance to a common burrow. Muskrats and otter do not traditionally get along (as in – otters can eat muskrats), however, so I’m not sure what was going on there. The muskrat was active at the same time the otter was out so perhaps the two have come to terms somehow (aided by the fact that the otter was satiated by a more than ample crayfish supply).

Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7257_zpsff1475d3.jpg

Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7253_zps163d6882.jpg

Otters are not un-common in Michigan but they are widely scattered and rarely seen. One study in Northern Michigan showed their distribution to be about one per every 4.8 miles of river shore. Every sighting, therefore, is special. One doesn’t get the chance to look down the mouth of a Michigan Otter very often. Unfortunately I was somewhat down in the mouth because we were closing down the cabin for the year and this was our last day for the year. I can’t tell you how long the creature worked the lake or if there was any drama between the muskrat and the otter. The morning sun was still breaking over the trees and the otter was taking a break in its burrow by the time we left. We otter be back by next March to continue the story.

Otter on Dollar Lake photo IMG_7140_zps4a685a35.jpg

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