Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 22, 2016

A Shameful Case of False Advertising

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:21 pm

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I knew it was my moment. I purchased a pack of Cow Seeds at a garage sale. The package looked a bit worn, but thought the black & white contents might still be viable. The 10 cent price tag was ridiculously low, given that they could potentially produce 5 full grown Holsteins and, although I didn’t know exactly how much they were worth, I did know that cows were very expensive items. Keeping cool and poker-faced I boldly negotiated the price down to 5 cents and smugly walked away knowing I had bested the seller (Jack was his name – a beanstalk of a fellow who obviously didn’t know beans about value).

Because the season was late, I waited until this spring before actually planting the bovine seeds. Even though the instructions clearly stated that cow seeds did not need manure, (because they produced their own), I opted to throw them into a patch of manured ground on a small farm located west of Mackinaw City. I had no idea who owned the farmland, but thought that immaterial. My decision was hasty, but not udderly without thought. I’d return soon after and claim my animals – citing accidental planting and exhibiting the torn empty package as proof. I’d offer the farmers a few dollars for their time, feed and care of my stock and drive off with my cows in tow. Good sound reasoning, yes?

I even had it figured out that I could tap the animals for milk every few days using my left-over maple syrup spiles and buckets. If, by chance, any bulls turned up in the bunch they would have to be butchered for market using my Swiss Army Knife tool array.  But, since this package was clearly labelled Cow Seeds I doubted such a thing could happen. If it did then there would be a clear case of false advertising and the courts would back me all the way.

In retrospect, my naiveté couldn’t have been more profound. I could only have wished to deal with a simple bull issue! I suspect now that they were not, and never were, Cow Seeds but instead deliberately doctored knock-offs made to look like Cow Seeds. These seeds did not produce cows, or any sort of bovine – heck, you’d expect an errant pig or two in the mix but the trouble was much darker. Snow Buntings sprouted from the frozen manure when they were planted. Yes, Snow Buntings.

Snow Bunting photo IMG_2509_zpsfu2res6r.jpg  Snow Buntings photo IMG_2488_zpsdqbnfzsw.jpg

I’ll take some minuscule blame here. I’m not a completely ignorant. Perhaps it was a bad idea to plant the seeds on a bitter cold April day. There was always that slight risk that the resulting cows would turn out to be Yaks or Musk Oxen if the temperature was on the cool side. Perhaps Mackinaw wasn’t the smartest location either. They could have emerged as ready-tanned tourist Moccasins for sale in one of the main street shops.  Even cow birds would be on the list of expected potential unlikely outcomes, but for God’s sake who’d expect a flock of tiny flighty Snow Birds.

Trying to make root beer out of the lemons handed me, I started to snap off pictures of the birds. Not only would these be valuable proof in the ensuing law suit but I really hadn’t been this close to live Snow Buntings before. Most of these temporary winter residents were gravitating back north to their high tundra breeding grounds by this time. The males were decked out in their glorious black and white courtship garb.

Snow Bunting photo IMG_2505_zpsadqw8euo.jpg

Snow Buntings don’t molt into breeding colors. They achieve the phase through feather wear. Earlier in the season most of the body feathers were tipped in yellow brown – in which case the males looked like the females. The feather tips deteriorate over the season and leave only the stark contrasting shades intact.

Now, don’t get the idea that just because I got some good photos of these birds that I am not fuming about the whole thing. The ungrateful visitors took off like a gust of winter breeze and vanished before I was done shooting. I was left with a pile of frozen dung and deep regrets. My Five cents was gone just like that. Never again, I said to myself as I snapped the lens cover back on and trudged through the drifting snow to my car.

I will get my comeuppance. I recently purchased some Red-winged Blackbird Seeds at the Farmer’s Market and plan to sell them to Jack as Scarlet Tanager Seeds. Yes siree, he’ll wish he’d never crossed me.

Red-winged Blackbird Seed photo IMG_2650_zpsxvqb0235.jpg

April 20, 2016

Dipsy Doodle at Mackinaw

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:48 pm

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My recent spring trip to Mackinaw turned out to be winter visit. No one should expect the first weekend in April at the Straits to be like Daytona Beach, but three inches of snow and teen-degree weather was a bit extreme. Nothing looks quite so desolate as a summer town in winter. Expansive empty ferry boat lots were blanketed in un-tracked whiteness and the giant wiener atop the closed restaurant on the west edge of town was dusted in a fine coat of sugar. No one puts sugar on a hot dog or goes to Mackinaw in the winter unless they have a reason.

What, you may ask, was my reason? I was invited as a presenter at the first annual Mackinaw Straits Hawk Watch Festival. This is a newly developed spring hawk-watching site and the festival was intended as a coming out party of sorts. Well, the events themselves went very well and the attendance was terrific because the planning was impeccable (and everything was indoors). One of the hawk-watchers later told me on Saturday night that the actual hawk migration count that day was negative 14. “Yes, he said, “all the hawks were heading back south!” Oddly enough, one of those birds was a Black Vulture, which is a southern bird with no business being there. It apparently turned south upon encountering the bridge fee. The Turkey Vultures never warned him of that.

I spent my spare time making tire tracks across the ferry lot. Without interference from pesky tourists, I was able to drive my car right up to the edge of the seawall. Safe and warm inside the heated car compartment I was able to lean out the window and observe the congregation of waterfowl clustered in the blue-green waters of Lake Huron.  The birds were fairly tolerant of my car because it was white and blended well into the spring, er…winter backdrop. The single Red-breasted Merganser swimming before me was a special treat.

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Aptly called “Hairy Heads,” the raggedy plumed Red-breasted Mergansers sit squarely in the middle of the saw-billed clan.  The males challenge the bold patterns of the smaller Hooded Mergansers and are close in size to the plainer Common Mergansers. I don’t see them nearly as often as these other two. When I do, I am reminded of the vivid portrait of this species executed by the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes- an artist of near Audubon importance (see below). One of his specimens was drawn in late March 1909 at Monroe, MI, so naturally his painting is near and dear to my artist/naturalist heart.

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Watching the bird cruise about the near shore beach, it appeared to be engaged in fishing but was, none-the-less, distracted. Repeatedly dipping his head below for an underwater view it often craned its neck as if looking for something and only dove under once or twice. As I clicked another shot, the fancy bird quickly revealed what was really on his mind. He performed a superb “salute-curtsy.”

That aptly named maneuver may sound like something Dick Button would say as part of his Olympic skating commentary, but it is actually a courtship move.  It is intended to impress female Red-breasted Mergansers rather than a panel of judges. It was a 10 (although the Russian judge only gave it a 6). As the photo shows, the bird stuck his neck out at an angle, opened his mouth (thus highlighting the bright orange mouth lining), dipped his chest into the water, rose his rump up high, and folded his tail straight down. The magnificent crest was lowered in this case to streamline the salute – like a saber being thrust in to the air.

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Now, I’ve never seen this move except in books or on videos and surprised to see it here for there were no females about. The bird was solitary, as in completely alone, and without anyone to impress except the freezing naturalist in the white car. The only conclusion I can draw is that this individual was practicing. His mind was on courtship and no doubt getting ready for the big show.

I know the action was not intended for me, but this singular maneuver did put me on notice. In spite of the snow, wind, and cold it was actually spring according to the calendar and the bio-clock. Soon enough the sugar will melt off the dog.


April 10, 2016

One Pic Post: Air Mail

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 2:57 pm

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Although few and far between this spring, a scattering of nice spring days have bubbled up to the surface. On such days, the sun takes the edge off the cool winds enough to call them refreshing – as opposed to the de-fleshing blasts of unfriendly days. Newly hatched spiders, blossoming maples, swelling cottonwood buds, and short-wearing youth clad with heavy coats signal the return of reasonable weather.

It would normally be my preference to focus on the cottonwood or maple flowering part of the season, but since I’ve already addressed them in the past it was a choice of youth or spiders. So naturally I gravitated to youthful spiders. Actually it was trip across the road to get the mail that prompted this post (my first in half a year due to an onset of “authoritus” – meaning the writing of a book and not writer’s block).

Astride the top of the mail box, a tiny spiderling barely 2 mm across scrambled to the highest point. There it paused before assuming a tripod stance and lifted his abdomen high into the air whenever a gust of wind fluttered by. It was attempting to deliver itself as air mail unto the mercy of the postal breezes. I was struck by the ironic mix of duty and place.

Unseen to my naked eye, and to the camera lens, the potential pilot sent out a series of two or three long radiating silk threads from its spinnerets at the tip of the abdomen (thus the stance).  These lines will be grabbed by the wind and eventually lift the tiny cargo aloft. Scientists call this method of travel “ballooning.” It is a primary means of dispersal for young spiders. We are not sure what the spiders call this procedure, although the fictional Charlotte would have been able to write it out in her web. Like the babies in “Charlotte’s Web” my micro-arachnid was seeking new ground via the magic of free air.

Ballooning is a risky means of travel since the spider has little control over its fate once pulled into the air stream. After all, we all know the story of the hapless professor who started his balloon in Kansas and ended up in the Magical Land of Oz. Most spider flights take the passenger a few dozen yards – enough to get it away from its fellow spiderlings and onto new hunting grounds.  Frisky gusts, however, can take a spiderling for miles horizontally or vertically and turn them into what has sometimes been referred to as aerial zooplankton. Certainly some end up tangled in maple flowers, upon swelling Cottonwood buds, and even onto the purple hair of a short-wearing youth clad in a heavy coat.

I do not know the fate of my spiderling because it failed to launch after several attempts. To spare it further embarrassment I left it alone and now imagine that the wee spider ended up in Oz.

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