Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 31, 2014

A Haunting Hemipteran

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 12:12 pm
Masked Hunter photo MaskedHunter6_zps4d96c0aa.jpg
There may be a masked killer lurking in your bedroom or in the deep recesses of the closet under the stairs. He is an ashen ghost who moves slowly and deliberately yet will strike with frightening speed at the appointed time. He is the dust bunny you will never see until it is too late. Don’t look under the bed or shine a light into the closet unless you are prepared. Bwa ha ha ha! BWA HA HA HA! BWA H (cough, cough, hack…). Darn I hate these dusty places.
The Masked Hunter is a real creature. It lurks in the very places mentioned in my cheesy Halloween introduction but is not a threat to humankind. Rather, he is a beneficial beast that has taken up life in our abodes and feeds on un-wanted insects – some of which can be a threat to our existence. A member of the Assassin Bug clan, they are equipped with hollow stiletto mouths with which they drain the life juices out of their prey. Although ants, beetles and other unwelcome guests form the bulk of their fare, bedbugs are targeted when present (note the words “when present” – the presence of masked hunters doesn’t mean bedbugs are about).

Masked Hunter photo MaskedHunter4_zps8775b396.jpgMasked Hunter photo MaskedHunter5_zps5e08a2c8.jpg

A full grown Masked Hunter does not wear a mask. As an adult it is a stealthy predator that needs no disguise. As a nymph, however, it becomes a living dust bunny and covers itself with a mask of dirt and fibers. Long sticky hairs cover the body and accumulate the necessary material. The overall look is so well done that it is difficult to pick out individual features other than the six legs. The eyes are mostly covered and the antennae bent so as to look almost twig-like.
To enhance his appearance, the masked Hunter employs some method acting. Dust bunnies do not move so this dust clone moves very little. When prompted with a touch or a slight breeze it will advance with stilted stop-motion steps but only goes a short distance before freezing once again. The act is of Oscar quality. As a Halloween costume it is much better than any of the “Breaking Bad” or “Olaf” costumes that appear at your door, although a child acting like a masked hunter would take forever to get around the neighborhood and dearly try the patience of the attending parent.

Masked hunter photo MaskedHunter_zps4880d9cf.jpg

The Hunter pictured here, although photographed within the setting of my house, did not come from it. It was found within the coat room of a very new and non-dusty church! Against the dark short carpet the thing stood out like a sore thumb. I will release it again so that it can continue to do good, but haven’t decided whether to bring it back to the church or let it go here. The more I think of it, I’lI put it into the bag of the child that comes to my door dressed as a bedbug….bwa ha ha ha HA HA HA H (cough, wheeze, hack).

Masked Hunter photo MaskedHunter2_zpsdd70b875.jpg

October 25, 2014

Here Comes the Witching Sun

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 1:13 pm
Box Elder Bug in the Morning Sun photo BoxElderBugintheMorningSun_zps89d80891.jpg
Box elder bugs are year-round insects but we don’t usually notice them until the “witching season” in late autumn. At that time they gather around the cracks and crevices that will eventually become their winter home. Until freezing temperatures force them to descend into the deepest recesses of their hibernaculum (that’s “scientific” for winter hibernation chamber) they pretty much spend all their time sun-worshiping. The low morning sun is especially relished.
I have a cedar shingled house offering plenty of potential hibernacula. The entire east side is bathed by the rays of the morning sun on early bright fall days. You could call it a Box Elder Bug palace; although I doubt that particular phrase would enter into the realtor’s description should we opt to sell the place as we enter the autumn of our lives.
The Box Elder B’s greet the sun with a collective sigh of relief – clustering into small social clubs where they talk about how much life sucks. As sucking insects this topic is a positive one. In the spring they will emerge to feed on seeds and low plants until the local female Box Elders trees (or occasional maple) come to flower. There they will suck Elder sap and raise new little suckers.

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The only question remaining for the next year’s elder Box Elder Bug population is what to call the new Box Elder Bugs they create. Should they be called Box Youngling Bugs or perhaps Box Baby Bugs in order to separate them from the older and wiser winterers? Fortunately this never poses a real problem because the elder Box Elder Bugs die before they can gather into focus groups.
We superior humans, of course, know that this is a stupid question because the plant is called Box Elder not because it is older than the rest but because, um, well … because of… Oh, yes because the wood resembles that of the Boxwood tree and the leaves that of the Elder tree. And we ALL know that Elder trees are guarded by witches and, according to an old European chant (“And I myself an eldern tree”) some are actually witches themselves!
Silly insects, they believed that they were feeding on witches’ blood all summer but were actually taking in fake witches’ blood. As half-wing insects (true bugs are hemipterans), it could devastate the other half of their lives should we let them in on this devastating secret. I for one do not want to listen to the collective sobs of a million Box Elder Bugs through my wall all winter long.

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October 4, 2014

Developing Drakes

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 1:07 pm
Juvenile Mallard photo IMG_6506_zps15db63d6.jpg
It was only after the mink disappeared under a tree root that I re-directed my attention to a trio of Mallards across the river. They were clear enough to see, but in the world of nature study Mallards are not normally on the top of the list. This is not a good thing, but it is a thing because familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least complacency. These fine fowl were standing unsurely on a submerged branch as the current of the swollen Huron River rushed past them.
Backlit by a strong morning sun, they were on high alert with nervous heads bobbing atop extended necks. Actual wild mallards, not frumpy farm fowl, they were ready to bolt at the sequential exposure to a mink and man! Fortunately they hung around for a frantic minute before exploding into flight.
These male birds were perfect examples of the teenage type (due to plumage and not erratic unexplainable behavior). Juvenile birds offer some interesting plumage combinations as they transform into adulthood via a time-honored schedule. It is not a random process. Because it occurs relatively quickly, however, it is a minute phase of the natural year that is often overlooked.

Juvenile Mallard photo IMG_6507_zps7e700363.jpg

Earlier in the month the ducks bore the brown mottled plumage of youth and were now in the late September mode of wardrobe change. At this stage the mottled breast feathers are mostly replaced by the deep russet tones of drakehood and most of the back and shoulder feathers have already converted over to light gray. It will take a while before they attain the distinctive black curly feathers on their fully mature bottoms, but they already exhibit a manly looking yellow bill.

Juvenile Mallard photo IMG_6510_zpsce8b42eb.jpg

The green portion of the head, that part which gives the species the common name of “Greenhead,” is but a simple crescent lying between eye and beak as of early fall. As the season progresses, this patch migrates from front to back until the entire head becomes iridescent green by winter. You will see some Mallards which have an overall spotty green head (“scruffy” by some definitions) and these would be the adult drakes recovering from their late summer eclipse plumage. Adult Mallards undergo two molts per year.
The subject of molting is a big one in the bird world. For these juvenile males, the act of changing feathers involves a heavy physiological workload. Being mostly protein, feathers make up around 1/3 of the entire body protein of the animal. Therefore, feather-growing requires a substantial intake of protein rich foods. Add to this burden the need to put on an extra load of fat for migration and you have birds that can afford little time for leisure.


September 8, 2014

Second Nature: I Spy Flies

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:56 am

Second nature: something that should be natural and easy to do –such as a short piece on a small subject based upon a few moments of nature observation. Get it? Second, as in part of a minute, and…never mind.

Machimus Robber Fly photo IMG_6195_zpsd28841fc.jpg

A large golden fly landed on my arm as I was standing on my Dollar Lake dock. The thing was so bizarre looking, and appeared so suddenly, that I briefly thought it to be some sort of twisted “bluebird of happiness.” I would not have expected a long-legged, hunchbacked, fuzzy yellow insect to be a bringer of fortune but at my stage of life I am open to suggestion. Unfortunately it took off and briefly landed on the dock before vanishing into thin air. I actually felt slightly sadder after the encounter, and so conclude it was merely a “fly that reminds people how average looking they are.”
This was no average looking fly, however. Called a Hunch-backed Bee Fly, this critter is a member of a group of so-called flower flies. The adults feed on nectar and the maggots steal food from solitary wasps. Hunch-backs specialize in coneflowers and daisies. I guess that my cone-shaped head must have tricked it into approaching me. Apart from the legginess and humpiness of this individual, the peculiar antennae are worth noting because of their un-flylike length and fuzziness. In some texts they are sometimes referred to as scalehorn flies for this reason.

Hunchback Bee Fly photo IMG_6215_zps28fadcf8.jpg

Scientifically this fly is labeled Lepidophora lutea; meaning “yellow scale bearer” or something like that. This is a good name. Even the wings have a light coating of buttery-hued scales. It is a much better name than “the stupid fly that mistakes people for flowers.”

Machimus Robber Fly photo IMG_6197_zpsf10e509e.jpg

Back on the shore I came upon a robust fly of a very different sort (see above). It was a Robber Fly in the process of draining the life out of a tiny moth. Unlike the humble Bee Flies, Robbers are aggressive predators. They tackle flying insect prey with stout legs and then inject them, via a blade-like proboscis, with toxic spit. This fluid paralyses the victim and liquefies the organs so that the fly can leisurely suck out the mix like a McDonald’s shake. The flavor of the hour in this case was a diminutive moth called a Small White Grass Veneer Moth (see below).

Small White Grass Veneer Moth photo IMG_6229_zps71b0c278.jpg

All of Robber flies share a generally hairy look and often possess a “Snuffy Smith” mustache of sorts bordering the lower face. Their maggots are predatory (in other words “not cute”). Like all flies, the adults have only one pair of wings. The second pair are reduced to tiny clubs called halteres (look closely under the wing in the first picture below). These organs rotate about when the creature is in flight and act as gyroscopes.

Machimus Robber Fly photo IMG_6200_zpsb1f90e89.jpg  Machimus Robber Fly photo IMG_6196_zps100b77ae.jpg

There are thousand of species of Robber flies in the world. Based on cursory investigation I’d say this particular life-stealer was a female member of the genus Machimus. The Greek origins of the genus name refer to “war-like” or “soldier” depending on how it’s used. There was a city in Greek legend called Machimus which was populated by huge warrior people and Machimus was one of the 50 dogs that attacked and ate the hunter Actaeon after he was turned into a stag. You see he accidently came upon a bathing goddess and saw here naked and…forget it. Greek stories are far too complicated to explain here, so let’s leave this discussion where it lay.

August 31, 2014

A New Face in Town

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 5:28 pm
Spurge Hawk Moth Caterpillar photo SpurgeSphinx2_zps8a97ebd8.jpg
Even from behind the steering wheel I could see that the caterpillar crossing the road ahead of me was a whopper. We were on 131 heading north through Mancelona, MI and the pre-labor day traffic was fairly light. I hastily pulled off to the shoulder to get out and snatch the critter from the blacktop but had to wait out an on-coming pack of cars before I could make my grab. Fortunately most of them veered into the left lane as they passed me and therefore missed the caterpillar. The last one, a camper unit, barreled past within the lane and the resulting gush of wind spun the ‘piller around and tumbled it head over heels down the road. I was there to pick it up after the dust cleared and was glad to see that the object of my attention was unhurt.
Although the creature spit up a bunch of defensive green goo into my hand to reward me, my actions were well worth the effort. The glorious three inch creature within my palm was a fantastic looking – yet unknown – type of sphinx larva. I was thinking Galium (Bedstraw) Sphinx but would have said so only if pressed (my wife didn’t press, so my ignorance remained safely concealed). Full identification had to wait until I reached an internet connection. Years ago I would have consulted my tote-along trove of field guides, but modern times require modern means. As it turns out, only this modern means could have provided the answer. Not only was this an imported species but was also a brand new addition to the state list. It was a Spurge Hawk Moth (aka Spurge Sphinx).

Spurge Hawk Moth Caterpillar photo SpurgeSphinx1_zpse007074a.jpg

A native of Europe and northern Asia, this insect was deliberately introduced to North America to control a pesky plant called the Leafy Spurge. The aggressive Spurge was accidently introduced back in the 1800’s and has had a devastating effect in the western grassland states. It was first recorded in Michigan in the 1880’s. A litany of six insects, including a variety of beetles and a gall midge have been – and still are – being considered as biological control. The Spurge Hawk Moth made the short list and was tapped as part of the first wave of attack on the Leafy Spurge (it’s sole food plant in Europe). Goats are also very good at munching down on leafy Spurge, although they are good at munching down on a great many other things as well. The sphinx is a specialist.
Most of the introductions were in the western states, but there was also one in Ontario a number of years back. Unfortunately, Even though this hawk moth larva is a voracious Spurge eater it appears that it has had little real effect. At the very least it provides a colorful new member of our local fauna and one which, more importantly, doesn’t compete with any native insect.

Spurge Hawk Moth Caterpillar photo SpurgeSphinx_zpsb65d057e.jpg

The first recorded sighting of the Spurge Hawk Moth in Michigan, according to the MSU extension site, was on June 10, 2013. That individual was an adult captured in the Grand Traverse area. Some more larvae were spotted a month later in Leelanau County. This summer another blogger reported a caterpillar west of Gaylord. Antrim County, the location of my find, is in the same general area as the previous sightings but indicates a slow but steady expansion of range. By virtue of its late summer timing it also proves that these insects are double brooded in this state. I guess my posting makes for the forth “official” record and a spot on the meaningless achievement hall of fame podium!Spurge Hawk Moth Caterpillar photo SpurgeSphinx4_zps79a14557.jpg
The Spurge Sphinx larva does look very much like the Galium Sphinx and certain varieties of the White-lined Sphinx but tops both in sheer gaudiness. The horn and head are scarlet, and the rest of the body is speckled with black, red, and white markings befitting a “radical” snowboard or fashionable scarf design. Perhaps this is why it has chosen the trendy Grand Traverse area for its step into society!
The reason this gaily patterned sphinx was crossing the road, unlike the famous chicken of joke fame, was to get to the pupation side. It appears to be a full sized individual. Younger larvas are darker and each instar has a differing color pattern. From what I can tell this fellow was ready to take the next step. For now the caterpillar resides in a dirt-filled Styrofoam coffee cup prepared as a pupation chamber. It will, assuming it behaves in line with virtually all sphinx caterpillars, burrow down into the sand, split its layer of bright attire, and convert into a sleek pupa. There it will stay until emerging next spring as a third generation Michigander.

Spurge Hawk Moth Caterpillar photo SpurgeSphinx3_zps6fdd2b88.jpg

August 25, 2014

Second Nature: Waspy Moths

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:46 am
Virginia Creeper Borer Moth photo IMG_6146_zps69562d86.jpg
Second nature: natural observations made with little effort and requiring little explanation. While nature appreciation should be second nature in the true definition of the term, it can also consist of observations made within a short period time. Ideally nature study should not be constrained by time but the real world demands otherwise (assuming you are a participant in the real world). So, the challenge is to see what we can see given the time we have to see it. Sometimes literally seconds are all we get, but that often can be enough.
Because of a busy week (including the birth of a grand child) I was limited to short term ramblings in my back yard and thus the birth of this “second nature” segment. There will be more.
I came upon two wasp-mimic moths within a few minutes and a few feet of each other. They were hanging about on the vegetation bordering the yard. These creatures are unusual in several respects. As moths, they are double weirdoes. Most moths are creatures of darkness which fly and feed by night. Aided by the protection of camouflage they rest by day. Wasp mimics are daytime fliers who blatantly call attention to themselves. They display wasp features such as narrow, partially or wholly transparent wings, and spastic type behavior.

Virginia Creeper Borer Moth photo IMG_6155_zpsb3658479.jpg

Virginia Creeper Borer Moth photo IMG_6151_zpsf6d6dca4.jpg

The Virginia Creeper Clearwing (see above) is a middle-sized moth whose dark coloration gives it the appearance of a paper wasp. When approached it raised its abdomen, as if to present a “stinger,” and twitched both yellow tipped antennae as if to say “I, sir, am a wasp and you will not bother me or else…)”. The threat is implied subtly because most predators require little in order to be convinced that an easier meal is to be sought elsewhere. This façade quickly breaks down upon a closer look which reveals a very moth-like face, fully scaled set of forewings, and a harmless behind. As a larva the Clearwing bores into the roots of Virginia Creeper. Oddly enough the species name is Albuna fraxini. The species portion of that name (the second half) refers to Ash trees even though the thing apparently has no relationship with ash trees whatsoever.

Maple Callus Moth photo IMG_6163_zpse9b24e7f.jpg

Maple Callus Moth photo IMG_6159_zpseb71cb7b.jpg

A few feet over, I came upon a spritely little Maple Callus Borer (see above). In the same family as the Virginia Creeper Clearwing, this species sports completely clear fore and underwings ornamented with scaled stripes. Both the common and scientific names are appropriate in this case. It too is a youthful borer whose larvae feed upon the cambium layer of maple bark. The species name acerni means “of maple wood” and the common name details the larva’s propensity to burrow near tree wounds (and thus creating more calluses).
The most distinctive feature of the Maple Callus Borer is the scarlet tuft at the end of its slender abdomen. This spritely little day flier seems to hop about as if propelled by these imaginary rocket flames.

August 9, 2014

Fuzzy-headed Youth

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:13 pm
Immature Female Wood Duck photo IMG_5936_zpsb4f1eb27.jpg
Epidomax flycatchers, fall warblers, and immature birds are the bane of any birder’s existence. Lack of distinctive markings or “Jekyll and Hyde” seasonal plumage traits are enough to drive one into madness. Yet, because birders already live on the fringe of madness they accept, and even thrive upon, such challenges. Splitting feathers is both an occupational hazard and an essential part of the game. Since I avoid fall warblers like the plague and look the other way when any small greenish flycatcher shows up, I am left to deal with those immature birds.
Basically full grown in size, yet lacking full adult plumage, immature birds are like unfinished paintings of the birds they represent. True to the term they represent young birds not ready for prime time. Depending on the species these can range from hatching year birds which convert within a season (perching birds, woodpeckers, ducks, etc. ) to those taking several years to attain full plumage (eagles and gulls, for example). Often these young birds have the general adult look in terms of size and profile but are attired in a different cloth.

Immature Red-headed Woodpecker photo IMG_5996_zps84446079.jpg  Immature Turkey photo IMG_6016_zpsc13864cd.jpg

I have offered examples of young Pied-billed Grebes, Red-headed Woodpeckers (see above left) and Turkeys (see above right) in previous posts. Of these, the Pied-billed immature (see below) takes the cake in terms of taking on a radically different look from the parent (in other words the one that looks suspiciously more like the mailman than the husband).

Immature Pied-billed Grebe photo IMG_5494_zpsadd50335.jpg

This time, I’d like to present two additional immature examples just for the sake of discussion. The first is a well-named woodpecker and the second a very familiar duck. Let’s look at the duck first.
While at the Bay City State Park Waterfowl Festival I decided to walk one of the nature trails. Volunteers had previously set out various duck decoys in the water adjacent to the trial route as part of a duck I.D. activity that originated at the festival. There were numbered stations and numerous floating decoy examples which required identification. Closing in on one station I saw a few mallard decoys in the water and another, a less-than-convincing female Wood Duck, cunningly perched on the limb of a downed tree arching over them.
Soon, I noticed several other “woodies” scattered about on the tree trunk just above the level of the duckweed covered marsh. Again, all were in un-finished condition. The male birds especially lacked the brilliant hues and crest of adult Wood Ducks. The uppermost decoy took me aback when it bobbed its head and shifted pose. It turned out that she, and her fellow ducks, were real flesh and blood Wood Ducks after all. I could only see two of them clearly but there were at least six of them.

Immature Female Wood Duck photo IMG_5928_zps7cf90163.jpg  Immature Female Wood Duck photo IMG_5935_zps572dec64.jpg

From the time they leap from their nest hole, young Wood Ducks are constantly attended by their mother. The adult female sticks with her brood for at least 4 weeks – after which the bond slowly dissolves and the young are left to fend for themselves. They take about 6-8 weeks to fully fledge and hang together as a unit for an extended time. My living decoys represented birds fresh into their motherless phase of life and well on their way to independence.
The scattered universe of head speckles on the immature female (see above) were in the process of congealing into a clear white eye ring. Her breast speckles were starting to arrange themselves into the neat ranking of adulthood. Otherwise she looked very mature for her age (isn’t that always the case!).

Immature Male Wood Duck photo IMG_5931_zps5fc5e09c.jpg  Immature Male Wood Duck photo IMG_5932_zpsaa3df7d3.jpg

The male bird, on the other hand, was still in the dork stage (see above). His white chin straps were barely defined against the fuzzy pale brown head feathers. There was only a hint of a crest present and the flanks were still dark. This bird did have the beautiful red eyes and a wonderfully ornamented black, pink and white bill that would later define him as among the most beautiful of waterfowl.
My encounter with a woodpecker of unknown species was of a much shorter duration than the woodie encounter. Had I not snapped a few quick shots before the thing returned to obscurity in the nearby woods, I would have been left clueless (more than normal that is). Before me was a speckled medium-sized woodpecker with a brown head.

Immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photo IMG_6013_zpsc920df18.jpg

It took a while to figure out that this sleek little fellow was an immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. In retrospect (thanks to the miracle of photography), I could see that the distinctive white shoulder stripe – a defining mark for adult Sapsuckers – was present. The color of the head and upper shoulders was purple brown. Black was gradually replacing the brown areas from back to front like ink bleeding across wet paper. There was nary a trace of any red head markings on the head. It seems that this part of the plumage (males are identified by their red throats), along with the yellow belly, develops last and so this bird will remain a genderless little sapsucker for now.

Immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photo IMG_6014_zps17af2f38.jpg

By the time the migration season begins in late September, both the woodies and the sucker will be properly attired according to their sex and species. I will not recognize these fuzzy headed youth when they return in the spring resplendent with full coloration and the bloom of maturity.

July 25, 2014

Bringing Up Baby

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 4:57 pm
Pied-billed Grebe & Young photo Pied-billedGrebeandYoung_zps7ff108e5.jpg
As summer grows long in the tooth and the fresh green leaves of spring begin to display ragged edges, single brooded birds are in their final stages of parenting. For them, the proof of the season is a successful crop of young. There is little or no time for a “do over” at this point. There were three active families performing this role about the grounds at Dollar Lake over the past few weeks and their activities made things interesting. Not being a permanent resident of the place, my observations were separated by long periods of time – which means I was privy only to the middle of each story.
I am not sure, for instance, when the animated pair of Black-capped Chickadees excavated their nest cavity in the birch snag down at lake’s edge. I can only say that they did this at least two weeks before I found them. It takes around 13 days for the eggs to hatch and these birds were already feeding young. The hole was located about 7 feet up near the top of the broken trunk. Since the tree has been long dead, the punky wood made it easy for the “dees” to peck out their hole. It seems an impossible task for such a small billed bird, but a chickadee is a chickado when it comes to cavity creating.

Chickadee at Nest Hole photo ChickadeeatNestHole2_zps2119d037.jpg  Chickadee at Nest Hole 2 photo ChickadeeatNestHole1_zps6271a974.jpg

Both parents participated in the feeding and care of their chicks. I never saw the babies, hidden as they were deep within their lair, but can only imagine a full clutch (the average is 7) of hungry mouths were within. Both adult birds maintained a constant stream of caterpillars, moths, and other insects to fill those mouths – popping in for less than 20 seconds before emerging for another food hunt. The trips were spaced about 5 minutes apart and this was all day -every day over the four day period I was about the place.

Chickadee with Fecal Sac from Nest Hole photo ChickadeeatNestHolewithFecalSac_zps4817293c.jpg

The first successful picture I took of this activity revealed a parent, which had entered with a beak-full of food, exiting with a bag of poop. Better called a fecal sac, this white blob represents the excrement from one of the young. Urine and feces are contained within a white mucous bag, in the manner of a diaper, and the parents dutifully grab it and deposit someplace far from the nest. This, of course, keeps the nest clean and tidy. In the early stages each baby might put out a dozen of these per day which means a full nest of poopers would generate 60 or more of these offerings daily. Some species actually make a habit of eating this bag (what parents won’t do for their kids). I am not sure if Chickadees do this, but can say that at least on this occasion the bird flew off and dropped it.
Only passerines and woodpeckers do the fecal sac thing – others allow  their young  to let the poo fly over the edge of the nest. Fortunately (or should I say unfortunately) I did not witness the fecal sacking of the local pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers were already feeding full sized young by the time I crossed paths with them on my next northern visit.
Young red-heads, although matching their parents in size, lack the red head and stark black and white patterning of the adults. They are gray-headed, pale-billed, and sport a checkerboard pattern on the white portion of the wings. Traveling from tree to tree, the adults searched for insects as the young birds shadowed them. A symphony of mewing ensued whenever parent and young came together and just before the tidbit was deposited in the young woodpecker’s mouth.

Red-headed Woodpecker with young photo AdultRed-headedWoodpeckerwithYoung_zpsa90638f6.jpg   Immature Red-headed Woodpecker 2 photo ImmatureRed-headedWoodpecker1_zpscfb524f8.jpg

Again, not seeing the earlier stages, I would suspect that the young were approaching their final week of parenting (this takes about one month). Although they probably milked this pandering for another week before the adults gradually put an end to it.

Immature Red-headed Woodpecker photo ImmatureRed-headedWoodpecker2_zpsb2802a9a.jpg

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker photo AdultRed-headedWoodpecker_zpsa4132577.jpg

I saw both Red-headed parent birds in action, but only spotted one young at any given time (they were spread out through the canopy). In my final observation of this blog, that being of Pied billed Grebes, I only saw one young with one parent over the course of several weeks.
Earlier in the season, a breeding pair of Grebes constantly made their presence known through eerie vocalizations. Their nest, a floating pad of vegetation, was located somewhere among the cat-tails on the opposite side of the lake. Throughout the day, from early morning to sundown, the male repeatedly wailed with a cuckoo-like “kwop, kwop, kwop” call before his female finally told him to shut the heck up!

Pied-billed Grebe & Young 2 photo Pied-billedGrebeandYoung2_zps92064e65.jpg

A Pied-billed Grebe, accompanied by a single large chick, started showing up close to our dock about a month after the nesting commenced. These birds were silent and shy in the extreme. Because both sexes look alike, and both participate in feeding young, I couldn’t tell which parent was present at any given time. But I can say that only one was present whenever I saw them. The adult would dive under and retrieve water insects and tiny fish to offer to the eager grebe-let. The kid often scrambled about in confusion whenever the adult vanished and eventually took to diving in order to keep up.

Young Pied-billed Grebe photo ImmaturePied-billedGrebe_zpsbee0d798.jpg

Young grebes are startlingly different from their parents. Instead of the somber pale brown, and “pied” beak of the adult the chicks are marked with brown and cream striping which is especially prominent on the head and neck. Patches of rusty red, combined with a pink bill, throw in a bit of color lacking in the final version of the bird. This pattern, found also in coots and gallinules, likely acts like the disruptive painting used on WWI troop ships (we copied nature in this case). It obscures the bird’s outline and makes it harder for the enemy to get a bead on it.
All of this leads me to one stark fact about the apparent lack of success on the part of the Dollar Lake Grebes. A normal clutch would contain 5-7 eggs and a like number of young. Only one chick apparently survived this year. It was being well cared for and would probably make it to full Pied bill status by late summer, but I was left wondering about the fate of its nest mates.
Early one foggy late July morning, after watching the grebes do their thing, my attention was drawn down to a movement under the water lily pads at dockside. A huge snapping turtle poked his head out from under one of the pads, eyed me suspiciously, and then slid beneath the still surface. Having seen this well fed reptile I believe we can answer the mystery of the missing grebe chicks. Disruptive colors do not help when the enemy comes at you from the deep.

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July 17, 2014

Le Petit Le Pew

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 7:44 pm
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First the facts. Striped Skunks have an average litter of 6 young. The maximum number in this department is around ten but some have enough nipples to accommodate up to 14 in case of a fertility crisis. Even though the little ones – skunklets we shall call them – can spray some musk at 8 days old they really don’t come into their own until approximately 32 days after birth. A skunklet begins the weaning process at that time, sports his first teeth (funny how these two events happen at the same time, eh?), and is able to “assume the position” and spray.
The critter is fully weaned within 46 days and able to follow mom and his siblings around on feeding expeditions. The whole black & white crew leaves the main den and they begin a life of wandering and temporary housing. Following dutifully behind their mother, a line of miniature skunks presents one of the more endearing sights in nature. Even the most ardent skunk hater has to soften upon viewing this Madeline-like habit (think broad- hatted Parisian school children following a nun).
By way of introduction, this brings me to a closer look at one such skunklet – a hands-on experience you could say. I will admit that what follows is a demonstration of what not to do with an animal of this kind. It is easy to get too panicky about this, but because a low percentage of skunks pose a rabies exposure risk it is sufficient to say that these animals should be seen and not touched. Because this latter statement goes for most wildlife, regardless of disease, it shouldn’t just apply to skunks. Skunks, of course, have a very good method of keeping you away and this problem usually resolves itself.
Unfortunately the little skunk in question somehow got separated from his litter mates and came under the care of a well-meaning friend. I took it as the opportunity it was (yes, mom, I was careful).
Based on the evidence presented earlier this orphan was probably close to that 46 day old mark. It was about the heft of a can of pop. It was (wisely) kept out on the enclosed porch and housed in an overturned box with a simple cutout doorway. Having been in custody for about a week, it was first fed with formula but quickly adjusted to a diet of insects, watermelon, meat scraps and whatever else was available. Mayflies, hatching out by the millions and abundantly available, were a favorite item of fare.

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It was difficult to get a good look at the critter because it continually waddled about like a wind-up toy – grunting like a tiny train engine as it probed every corner of the porch. I eventually, and against my better judgment, grabbed the thing and picked it up to examine it closer. Fortunately the little guy did not act on his objection to being restrained other than wiggling about. He did not attempt to bite nor did it spray. My friend mentioned that it did “spray a little” when it was surprised on the previous day, so I opted to put it back down (quickly).

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Taking a close gander at even a young skunk brings up a few details worth noting about these members of the weasel family. They are plantigrade animals which walk on the flats of their feet in the manner of bears and humans. The hind feet are fully soled (skunks got soul). Toe walkers, like dogs and cats have relatively small soles by comparison. Although still small at this stage, the claws on the front feet will eventually grow into formidable tools for digging grubs and tearing open garbage bags. Tiny eyes belay poor vision and a large rubbery nose is proof positive that smell plays a primary role inn this animal’s sensory array.

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Perhaps the most distinctive feature of any skunk is the black and white patterning. It is a feature, in fact, which identifies individuals from each other. No two skunks have the same decor. The contrasting pattern serves as a clear nocturnal warning sign to all potential predators that a ticking musk bomb is afoot. Nearly all skunks have a white nose stripe and a white crown but vary considerably after that point. Some are stripeless while others have a single broad white back stripe. Our tiny skunk had a weak double stripe cascading down the sides and a white tipped tail.

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I suppose I could now say that I picked up a live, fully scented skunk and survived the encounter without needing a tomato juice bath or enduring a series of shots. We don’t need to mention in the future that it was a defenseless little beast with no life experience.

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July 9, 2014

A Beaverless Beaver Romp

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 1:06 pm
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Although I should have learned my lesson last year, I decided on an early morning visit to the Beaver Lodge at Conner’s Creek. The lodge is on the property of the Edison Boat Club and sits along the bank of the old canal that once serviced the power plant and feeds into the Detroit River. I’ve been to the place many times over the past few years to check up on my old castoral friends.
Beavers are nocturnal, and these urban beavers are especially so during the summer. They are often daytime active during the fall and this has proven the best – and so far, only – time to observe them under the light of the sun. My recent effort was to see if the pair had any new young and to see these little guys when they were still small. I thought it worth the time to come right at sun rise before they, or as they, retreated to the daytime comfort of their lodge. It didn’t work last year, and it didn’t work this year. It won’t work next year either, but I’ll probably try it again anyway. My effort did not go totally unrewarded, however.
Here, surrounded by the sounds of sirens, brick buildings, power lines, and the abandoned fields of an old cityscape, wildlife abounds. Sitting rock still on a bright morning (moving occasionally only to sip on my coffee) I was relatively undetectable by wild passersby.

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A Black-crowned Night Heron stopped in for some fishing (see above). Perching on a grapevine wrapped cable, this individual was topping off his night with a regular visit to one of his old haunts before roosting for the day. The appearance of a lanky Green Heron (see below), landing uncomfortably on one of the power lines, signaled the heron dayshift. This bird opted to forgo the canal and continued north – probably to the small city park located on the Detroit River.

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Barn and Tree Swallows flittered past, along with the ever-present and ever-noisy Red-winged Blackbirds. The semi-submerged telephone pole, which forms the roof of the beaver lodge at its dry end, served as a sun porch for several large map turtles. These ponderous reptiles slowly made their way up onto the log one by one. At one point two of them sat face to face as perfect mirror images of each other before a third broke up the symmetry with an off-center entrance.

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All of this was entertaining, but from my point of view, however, the most interesting visitors of the day crawled up on the bank literally at my feet. Starting with one very cautious little muskrat making its way into the white clover patch to my right, a total of five of the little beasts ended up munching on the greenery. The grass was a bit shaggy and it was tall enough to nearly cover their tiny dark outlines as they grazed.

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The litter issued from the beaver lodge and represented the latest offspring of a family of muskrats that has been sharing the beaver abode for quite a few years. The two creatures are famous for such cohabitation.

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The muskrats in this herd were quite young – probably about a month old based on their size and general stupidity. They “spotted” and smelled me several times. True to their rodent nature, they would sit upright in order to assess the large coffee-reeking form looming over them. Eyesight is not one of their better attributes but still they attempted to fix their beady eyes on their mystery observer. A few even bolted for the cover of the grapevines after perceiving danger, but still they returned. I guess the power of fresh cloverleaf overcomes fear. This food over flight response is why most little muskrats never make it to adult ‘rathood, by the way. Adult muskrats have the sense to disappear after they sense danger. All they have to do is survive one close call in this whack-a-muskrat world in order to get enough predator-sense to continue.

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At this stage of life, muskrats lack their full covering of shiny guard hairs. Instead they appear to be clothed in fuzzy pajamas. They are near-prefect miniatures of the adults, but their rounded heads betray their close ancestry to Meadow Voles (aka Meadow Mice). They are, in fact, also close cousins to the beaver themselves. So, in a way I was able to have a near-beaver experience on this trip. You have to admit, they are cute by any standard – even if they represented a second choice to this beaver watcher.

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