Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 30, 2015

Spider in the Sap

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:37 am

Frozen Fishing Spider photo IMG_8378_zpsgcsolaty.jpg

The spring flow of maple sap is just about at an end. In terms of the Red Maples I am tending this season, it is a stretch to say that the season actually ever started – it’s been a poor year due to sustained cold temperatures and the natural whims of the annual cycle. It’s a pressure thing, you see. Freezing nights generate the negative pressure for drawing sap from the roots and thawing days create the positive pressure responsible for moving that sap up the trunk to the branches (and into the buckets). We’ve had plenty of freezing nights but they’ve mostly been followed up by equally freezing days and thus the sap flow has been faulty. Follow?

Frozen Sap in the Tap photo IMG_8468_zpsctkwgs5a.jpg

This is not to say that the sap buckets have been completely empty as of late. They’ve generated a supply of six and eight-legged contents worth talking about as we wait for the sap to melt. Spiders and Stoneflies are drawn to the buckets like flies to …well, you know.

After all, you know what they say: “A spider in the sap means eight more days of sugaring.”  Actually no one says that- I made that up as a lame way to breach the subject.  A spider in the sap simply means that smooth-sided metal sap buckets are dandy spider traps. A huge Fishing Spider found herself trapped in one of the buckets early last week. I’m assuming she fell in when the bucket was dry and became immersed by a two day flow of sap. She was clinging to the bottom (aka water side) side of the skim ice and imprisoned thus.

Fishing Spiders in Sap Bucket photo IMG_8377_zpsofjnav4a.jpg

A smaller male Fishing Spider tenaciously cling to the dry side of the ice and passed eight-eyed glances at his potential mate below. I assumed the female was dead because she was totally immersed and obviously had been for some time. Jarring the bucket, however, stimulated some leg movement and proved otherwise. Long story short, I liberated the hapless couple and send them on their merry (if slow moving) frigid way. She was short one leg but otherwise none the worse for wear.

Fishing Spider photo IMG_8389_zpslojcdp1s.jpg

Fishing spiders are water spiders, so being in liquid is a natural thing for them. They are not long-term aquatic beasts, however. Like all arachnids they breathe oxygen through flap-like “book lungs” and they depend upon their coat of fine hairs to trap an air-filled bubble layer around them when diving. They can’t sustain this for a very long and need to come up for air. Apparently when frozen, or nearly so, the oxygen demand is nil and the hairs maintain a dry bubble wrap surrounding. The large female was dry as a bone when I rolled the ice over and removed her.

Winter Stonefly photo IMG_8473_zps0m9ytpek.jpg

Several of the riverside buckets contained their share of Winter Stoneflies. These dark bodied insects are the very essence of the winter spirit and the sugaring season is their crowning moment in life. Equipped with only poorly functioning mouths they must have been attracted by the sugary sap ice. Freezing concentrates the fructose sugar at the surface and it can be lapped up like a Popsicle. As they say “A Stonefly in the sap bucket bodes well for the river that flows near it.” Again, this is not a traditional saying, but it should be. Stoneflies are good omens and these individuals speak well of the purity of the River Raisin.

Winter Stonefly photo IMG_8472_zpswxs2mzjb.jpg

As aquatic nymphs they can only live in clean, flowing, high-oxygen water and are very pollution intolerant. Since cold water contains the highest amount of oxygen, these creatures restrict their activity to the cold season. The nymphs actually burrow into the river bottom and hibernate during the summer (yes, you read correctly- summer hibernation) to avoid the warm oxygen poor summer water. They come back out to finish up their life cycle as fall arrives and emerge as winged adults as soon as the ice breaks up in late winter. The cold-tolerant adults only live for a short time after mating but know a good thing when they find it in a bucket.

You know what they say: “A Stonefly in the bucket is worth two spiders in the Drink”

March 21, 2015

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:21 am

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 4_zpsuudwca6f.jpg

There is no more dramatic expression of winter’s back being broken than the annual river ice breakup. Fighting against the ever present pressure of flowing water, river ice always exists on the edge. It gives way dramatically at the first sign of weakness. This winter, although it started otherwise, turned out to be another harsh one and enabled the River Raisin ice to reach a thickness in excess of one foot.  The river finally broke up last week and, true to form, it was a spectacular event.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 2_zpsow3ydr6d.jpg

First piling up at the Waterloo Bend, the mass of fractured ice eventually jammed up downriver at Hellenberg Park last Saturday. The weekend flow temporarily backed up onto the flats and deposited a field of huge blocks over the grass. The Baseball diamond was populated with a hundred new “base pads.” There would be no spring training on this field until after a week of warm weather permits it. A few Ring-billed Gull outfielders, waiting for their first crack at a fly ball, waded through the puddles.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Gull in the Outfield photo Gull in the Watery Outfield_zpsn4jvwr1p.jpg

Out on the river the ice jam filled the channel from shore to shore as it waited out the breaking of the river mouth ice. The jumble of ice blocks created a tortured landscape – an icy version of a construction landfill filled with broken pieces of building concrete. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the sheer amount of wood in the pile. The winter’s accumulation of mangled branches, tree trunks, and lumber was staggering.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 3_zpskerbx0vy.jpg  River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 6_zpsfs4wdxqd.jpg River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 7_zpscmf3vs1x.jpg

Several robins and a flock of Grackles hopped among the branches in the ice field. They seemed to find assorted “goodies” amid the chaos, although one can only imagine what they were. If indeed Robins were a true sign of spring, I would title the photograph below as “Dual Signs of Spring – Red-breast riding the Breakup.”  Unfortunately, because this particular robin was probably one of the regular winter residents it would be wrong to assume he was a recent arrival. I’m not afraid of being wrong, however, so I’ll put the picture up anyway.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Robin riding the Flow photo Boulder caught up in Ice Flow 2_zpsblq8hwjm.jpg

The whole scene got me to thinking about the ice age. Much of our landscape was created by continental glaciers grinding their way across the continent, collecting boulders, rocks and soil along the way, and depositing them hundreds of miles away. Each chunk of river ice was a mini glacier of sorts – it is far from pure. Large rocks, and even some boulders, were embedded in their matrix. Buckets of soil, trapped within the layers of accumulated freezing, were being transported from their origin some 50 miles away. On small scale, the melting edge of each block could be mistaken for the leading edge of a glacier. I was hoping to find a tiny mammoth melting out of one of the chunks, but was disappointed.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Edge of Block photo Rubble caught up in River Ice_zps2pmk69bl.jpg  River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Rocks, soil in ice photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup_zpszypjpbyk.jpg

The final stages of the breakup were starting as I observed the scene. Every so often the whole mass crept forward – robins, timber, rocks, and all. A dull rumbling, accompanied by tinkling ice cube notes, filled the air. It would come to a grinding halt after a few minutes.

Sometime over the course of that evening, the whole dam thing flushed out into Lake Erie. I’m sure it made an impressive sight and sound but I wasn’t there to hear it, (you know what they say about “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?”).  Regardless of the lack of witnesses, the river was ice free and flowing freely in the following dawn’s light. Spring had arrived on the fractured back of a river.

March 7, 2015

Spirit Ducking

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:54 pm

Diving Bufflehead photo IMG_7948_zpshpfykjk4.jpg

The River Raisin duck population has provided ample grist for my winter offerings on this blog. I’ve focused most of my attention on the Goldeneyes but feel it would be a disservice to ignore their little cousins the Buffleheads. After all, who am I to deny publicity to the waterfowl John James Audubon called the “beautiful miniature of the Golden-Eye Duck.” The problem is that these little divers spend so much under the water that they are hard to observe.  Add to this fact that there are only a few of them present on the river and you have a duck with little air time.

Bufflehead Drake with Mallard photo IMG_7935_zpsl44kt7ms.jpg

On a rare sunny day last week I was able to have some air time with a drake Bufflehead. The bird, although tiny, stood out amongst the giant geese and mallards milling about it. Male waterfowl are always the pretty ones. I’d never say that the females of the species are plain but would say they are practically attired in brown with attractively placed white cheek patches. Bright colors would make the gals look fat anyway. Drake Buffleheads, on the other hand, are permitted to make full use of striking black and white patterning and reflected color (iridescence).

The white patch on the head is the best field mark to identify Drake Buffleheads. From afar and on cloudy days (another word for Michigan Days) the rest of the head appears to be black or dull dark green. Full sunlight transforms this muted darkness into a rainbow of Kelly greens, Royal blues, Barney purples, Lemon yellows, and rich deep Nick ‘O the Night blacks. The stunning iridescence of the dark portion of the head is a little appreciated feature. This certainly is a feature geared toward attracting the females during courtship since it has to be seen close-up in order to be fully appreciated.

Bufflehead Drake photo IMG_7826_zpsalo62lti.jpg

Buffleheads have many nick-names. Rainbow-head is not, regrettably, one of them. Scientifically they are burdened with the Latin name Bucephala albeola which means whitish cowhead, or something like that – referring to the distinctive large white patch on their very prominent head. The common name is a corruption of Buffalo head and yet another nod to the big-headed thing.  Alternate names, such as “Butter-ball,” “Butter-box”, “Dipper,” “Marionette,” and “Spirit Duck” are body & behavior references. Butter-ball, for instance, aptly describes the chunky round body; Dipper focuses on the bird’s constant habit of diving under to search for invertebrates; and Marionette defines the manner in which it bobs up and down like a cork.

Tracking down the reasoning for “Spirit Duck” is a bit more difficult.  This name is also applied to Goldeneyes from time to time, and could refer to the active – aka spirited -nature of both birds (suitable for membership in the college cheerleading squad – the big-headed kid with the flat feet). Another interpretation is that the ducks are always moving into and out of sight like a spirit (as in “Ooo-ooo-oo”). Hey, it could mean that these ducks look like mini-moonshine jugs (full of spirits) or that they look like little cows when viewed by people who are imbibing in a large quantity of spirits.  O.K., I don’t really know the WHY, although I have most of my money on the first interpretation.  Bufflehead is a perfectly good name for this elusive and spirited little cow-headed diving duck.

Bufflehead Drake photo IMG_7844_zpsmnx5lhoi.jpg

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