December 20, 2014
The Christmas season has gotten me in the mood to talk about things hanging on trees. Un-natural tree ornaments abound in the form of Christmas tree decorations inside and gaudy light creations draped on yard trees outside. We don’t do the yard light thing at our place, but we do tend to put quite a few atypical ornaments on our Christmas tree. I am constantly reminded on how unusual some of them are. For those raised within the low oxygen atmosphere of our family they make perfect sense but for those “outside” this tradition they invoke odd questions. For instance, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t have a few squirrel chewed walnuts or miniature muskrat skinning boards (decorated as Santa) hanging on their tree.
This year, my son-in-law had the audacity to ask my why we had a badminton birdie as an ornament. My silent reaction was one of slight shock – as in “and you ask this why?” Fortunately I recovered in time to explain that, first of all, this was a vintage badminton birdie of the type that used real chicken feathers as opposed to the modern plastic fringed examples, but seeing that was equally inexplicable I went on to explain that it looked like a shooting star – or the Star of Bethlehem. That worked.
In nature, ornaments of all types are evident. Like the birdie they require some explanation to achieve appreciation. Oak Bullet Galls and Bagworm cases are two good examples.
Rough Bullet Galls are the creations of a tiny big-butted wasp labeled with the tongue-twisting name of Disholcaspis quercusmamma (a species name literally meaning “oak tits”). They afflict Burr Oak Trees. The galls are clustered, woody, and acorn-like with pointed tips. Some trees are covered with these structures and retain them for years. Most of the winter galls are punctured by a neat little hole indicating that the adult insects have successfully pupated and emerged.
The simple version of the gall wasp story is that they chew their way out in October or November, seek out the winter buds, and lay their eggs on them. The larvae emerge the following spring and their activity stimulates the tree to form a new gall which grows larger over the course of the summer. The more detailed version of the story is slightly odder. Wasps emerging in the fall are all female. These gals produce their eggs without the benefit of male intervention (a horrid thought if you are a male reader).
The final details of this story have only recently been uncovered by researchers. Apparently they’ve discovered an alternate generation in which both males and females are produced. These sexual forms issue from little galls, mate, and proceed to lay their eggs in the usual fashion. So, you see, Oak Tit galls offer much more than their initial appearance would suggest.
Bagworms offer yet another ornament with a story. Winter bagworm bags fall into two categories: empty ones, with pupa casings sticking out, and those containing egg clusters. I present a single example here which I can confidently say was built by a male Bagworm. The bag itself was constructed out of cedar scales by the developing larva as it fed upon the leaves and this structure served as a mobile retreat until late last summer. At that point the creature secured the thing to a branch with stout silk lashings, reversed direction to face downward, and split its skin to form a pupa.
Look carefully at the lower end of this bag and you’ll see the empty skin of the old pupae sticking out. The resident emerged sometime in September or Early October and sought out a female.
Female bagworms never leave their bag immediately after pupation due to the fact that they are wingless. In fact, they are among the ugliest of natural females with no eyes, no working legs, and no functional mouthparts. Grub like and pale, they have an odd fringe of glossy “fur” around the terminus of their ample bottom which adds absolutely nothing to their appeal. Male Bagworms locate the females and mate with them through the opening at the bottom of the bag. They never actually see their mates and this is probably for the betterment of bagworm fertility (no jokes about bag ladies here). The impregnated female eventually lays her load of eggs inside the bag and dies. Usually she crawls out and drops to ground to complete her unglamorous life.
Two natural ornaments, two fascinating life stories that would make even an antique badminton birdie blush.
December 14, 2014
The best time to write about ice is early in the winter season when it is still a novelty. It loses much of its magic “fairydust” quality by mid-season and becomes downright evil by the time January is laid to rest. In short, ice rhymes with nice in December and with lice in February. Ice also photographs better early in the season before the rest of the landscape becomes coated with whiteness and all waters become solid. This perception is purely personal, I suspect, but don’t expect that many folks would disagree with me.
There is no deadlier combination than an amateur digital photographer and a frigid December day. Such a mix leads to multiple useless “Art Shots” suitable only for computer screen backgrounds and postings by amateur nature photographers. Thus, I explain the images attached to this chapter of Naturespeak.
My December day, and resulting shots, issued from the banks of the Red Cedar River in Williamston, MI. I’m not sure how I ended up there, but it had something to do with a car and a half day to kill. There might have been a talking Chipmunk involved, but I can’t fully recall the details. The temperature was hovering in the low twenties and the earth was covered with a carpet of heavy frost. Even the trailside garbage looked attractive ornamented as it was with hoar frost, but I chose more photogenic subjects. A small South American monkey could have taken these shots, but no diminutive forest primate is capable of describing them properly. A talking Chipmunk could, but that is beside the point.
Another side effect of art photography is the use of overly poetic descriptions. As you can see I was intrigued by the shoreline ice which sent steely blue bayonets marching out to conquer the yet unfrozen water of the river. You see, that is what happens. Here are a few shots of shore ice and I am talking about bayonets. Sad, isn’t it? One must suffer for his art.
Sun is the enemy of frost. As the morning waned, old Sol was rising and melting the work of old Jack (frost). Shadows tried in vain to shield the morning ice from the warming rays but without hope of success. Of course, vain means without hope of succeeding and it was totally unnecessary for me to have said it in the same sentence but art required of me to do it. You must read this and feel the suffering of art as represented by repetitious sentences. Yes, repetitious sentences that repeat over and over like frost forming and dying day after day repeatedly.
Frost shadows hang onto the perimeters of the real shadows until they eventually lose the race and are vaporized. You can see this phenomenon dramatically depicted in a series I call my “Bottom Edge of a Chicken Wire Frost Shadow on a River Board Walk in December” set. I like the temporary nature of frost shadows. It’s too bad I caved into my South American monkey instincts and made them permanent.
My last shot is the least remarkable in terms of artiness, but I post it here because of what it represents. It is an effort to salvage some sense of scientific value to this blog. You see large fuzzy green Mullein leaves remain fuzzy and green throughout the winter months. Part of their resilience stems from the fact that they never indulge in art photography, but their fuzziness also has a role. Liquid water cannot freeze directly on the leaves because it is held above the surface by velvety hairs. Here you can see frozen beads of so ice suspended on a Mullein leaf. And you’ll notice that the ice beads have hoar frost attached to them – ice on ice. Nice.
Come to think of it, South American Monkeys have soft short hair too. I suppose they could also avoid freezing just like Mullein leaves do but they’d have to keep still and close to the ground in order to pull it off. Come to think of it, a minor monkey lying still on the winter ground and covered with hoar frost is called a dead monkey, so we’d better get off this line of narrative and put this one to bed. Art has reared its head high enough for now. Sleep well my digital camera; your human will take you on another adventure soon.
December 7, 2014
I’ve addressed the personal life of my backyard maple tree several times over the years. The Red Maple stands within clear view from the house and is situated directly opposite the back door. Sadly, the tree is slowly dying from within. It is riddled with cavities and rains down dead branches with every passing wind storm. Someday it may take out a corner of my ramshackle back porch if the wind spirits deem it so. Even so, I appreciate it too much to have it removed. Not yet. Even in slow decline it is full of life.
Some of the life present in, on, and around the tree are present only because the thing is in decline. A regular stream of woodpeckers, from tiny Downies to medium Red-bellies freely peck away at the dead branches to retrieve grubs. Large laughing Flickers hop about the base to lap up carpenter ants. Upside-down Nuthatches probe bark crannies from above and right-side up Brown Creepers investigate them from below.
Huge Horntail Sawflies show up from time to time to deposit their eggs deep into the wood. The hatching larvae spend several years tunneling through the trunk on their way to eventual maturity – spreading fungus as they go. The adults appear to be armed with a formidable horn off the end of their abdomen. They are not wasps, however, and this is not a stinger. It is only an ornament. The well-named horntails will assume a menacing pose and flaunt this pseudo-stinger in the air if threatened. It’s a good act and one certain to deter all but the most determined of predators and timid people.
One large cavity located in the main trunk has hosted a parade of alternating tenants over the past five years. The first major occupation, beginning about five years ago, was a family of Red Squirrels. This active little gang enlivened the tree with a half dozen little squirrelets which poured into and out of the cavity all summer long. The tenants enlarged the entrance to suit their needs and brazenly stole cardboard and paper from my shed (trashing it in the process) to fill it.
After a lull in the squirrel action the following year, a colony of honeybees established themselves in the hole. They re-altered the hole to fit their needs. By applying thick layer of resinous “bee glue” (propolis) around the edges, they narrowed the opening according to the honeybee pattern book. Inside they constructed intricate hanging combs, according to the same book, and filled them with eggs, stores of honey, and pollen.
The colony thrived into the following autumn but was stopped cold – literally – by the intensity of last winter. It appears that they were doing fine as of mid-season, but the prolonged and intense cold was too much for them to handle and the entire colony died.
After a summer of vacancy, Red Squirrels moved back into the cavity this past fall. I doubt they were the original squirrels, but probably the offspring with a nostalgic opinion of cavity life. Pieces of the old bee comb began appearing on the ground at the base of the tree as the squirrels cleaned up the mess. Most of the old combs were simply cast out whole. Starvation drove the bees to completely empty the combs so there wasn’t even enough honey remaining for a squirrel tongue to probe. One of the pieces revealed the beautiful freeform design typical of a wild hive unconstrained by frames and supers.
Chewing away most of the old bee glue, the squirrels further altered the cavity to meet the requirements outlined in their design book. So, it looks like the Reds will once again rule the maple tree hole this winter. Out with the old and in with the renew.
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