Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 21, 2015

Speedwell’s Moxie

Filed under: BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 9:34 am

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It wasn’t a miracle but given the context it kinda seemed like one. There growing out of a chink in the stone wall at Audubon State Park was a Persian Speedwell (aka Bird’s Eye Speedwell) in bloom. They were tiny blooms – near microscopic, in fact – but flowers none-the-less. I should mention that it was early-February and that the temperature hovered in the low 20’s. The biting winds, accompanied by snow flurries, were dragging the wind chills down into zero territory. It was cold enough to drive any human to seek shelter. Yet, this exposed little plant was mocking the season with an unseasonable display of green growth and sky blue petals.

As stated in my last blog, Audubon Park is located in Henderson, Kentucky on the south bank of the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana.  This place is “southish” but not near “fur enuff to ‘spect greens to be sproutin yit.”  All of the native plants were still deep in winter mode. Even the maples where suspending any hope of running sap. Even though it is an anthropomorphic term, moxie is the only word that came to mind regarding this plant.

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A weed by any other name (originally from Eurasia), the Persian Speedwell is a splendid example of what is referred to as a Winter Annual. By definition such a plant germinates in the autumn, lives through the winter, produces seed and dies the following season. It goes beyond all expectations, however, to actually bloom in the winter when early spring would do just fine.

Though hairy, the Speedwell is not especially so and what little it has provides meager to nil insulation value. No, it appears that the secret of this particular Speedwell’s ability to bloom at such a stressful time can be chalked up primarily to location, location, and something else….um, oh yes, location. Located on a south facing stone wall it can bask in the direct rays of the winter sun. The micro temperatures that surround the plant would be well above the ambient temperature on sunny winter days. The rocks would also store some of the heat and buffer the nighttime environment a bit as well. This plant took these slight advantages and ran with them.

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Here is yet another example of how nature’s rules, although they can be set among stones, are not set in stone. There really are no rigid rules in the natural world. Just ask the flocks of frigid Robins hanging about Evansville on that same day. In spite of modern myth, Robins are not Spring birds but year-round birds which frequently overwinter on site. They are used to cold weather. Those birds seeking shelter in the leeward side of a holly bush, however, looked miserably cold and self-doubting. Should I have told them about that cheery little Speedwell flowering over yonder I’m sure they’d of told me exactly where to stuff it.

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January 31, 2015

B.O.P s in the E.C.T. s

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 3:24 pm

Kestrel in a Cottonwood 3 photo IMG_7559_zps0fc32a32.jpg

Monroe County is located on ancient lake bed. The flat land is the product of a time when Lake Erie had aspirations of grandeur. Flush with the melt waters of the great glaciers, the lake once lapped against the moraine hills around Ann Arbor (before the University was there, of course). Eastern Cottonwoods are the dominant tree here because they thrive in the moist clayey soils deposited during that time. They can attain great height and size and are, in a contorted and sad way, our version of the Redwoods. They lord over the landscape where you don’t have to get very high to lord over (it).

It is natural, therefore, that local birds of prey gravitate to Eastern Cottonwoods as their observation posts of choice. It is fitting, although bordering on sarcastic, to say that if you seek b. o. p.’s then look in the high branches of the E. C. T.s. I offer three examples – actually two and a half – as my exhibits in today’s blog.

Throughout S.E. Michigan, and especially along the Detroit River and Western Lake Erie, Cottonwoods and Bald Eagles go together like bad taste and reality television. They build their massive nests in them, roost in them, and generally perform their daily work among them.

Bald Eagle in a Cottonwood photo IMG_7382_zpsdf73871a.jpg  Bald Eagle in a Cottonwood photo IMG_7383_zps4f856179.jpg

I spotted one of the resident Bald Eagles eying the River Raisin on a recent bitter January morning. Perched high in the branches of a large Cottonwood on the opposite bank, the mature Bald Eagle technically wasn’t “working” at the time I observed it. It was looking around but not down – which goes a long way towards explaining why the hundreds of Canada Geese and Mallards cavorting in the icy water were unconcerned. Fish are the major item on the eagle’s menu, but waterfowl are often a preferred side dish so it is wise for them to pay attention to the moods of a nearby predator. This eagle was chilling – In more ways than one – and therefore not a threat.

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Further east, and a week later, a male Kestrel chose the highest possible end of the highest possible branch on a medium sized Cottonwood at Sterling State Park along Lake Erie. Proportionally, however, this bird of prey was about the same size to its Cottonwood as the Eagle was to its tree. The tiny raptor was using his cottony perch to scan the grassland below for Meadow Voles. Occasionally it shifted its head from side to side in order to get a perspective view of a potential target and then nervously pumped its tail upon discovering that the movement was generated by a wind driven leaf.

Kestrel in a Cottonwood 1 photo IMG_7543_zps09fcbf4f.jpg

The bright colors of the American Kestrel are muted in the dull light of mid-winter. Feathers fluffed out as protection against the cold further diffuse this colorful attire. Even so, this bird could not hide its varying hues of orange, rust, and slatey blue.  Black “eye spots” on the back of the head were especially visible on this hunter. The Kestrel did not make a kill during the time I watched it and cast quite a few “act like a tree and leave” glances in my direction before I got the message.

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My final offering comes in the form of a pellet as opposed to an actual predator in a Populus tree. Found on the ground beneath the cover of a vine tangle, this large pellet (about 3 in. long) consisted entirely of Ring-billed Gull feathers and bones. I can state the feather identity with certainty because of the single Ring-billed Gull wing that laid atop the vine cluster overhead (see above).  Scattered down feathers and whitewash lay about the place. The branches of a huge Cottonwood towered over it all, of course. There is little doubt that a large bird of prey sat upon its branches while discombobulating the unfortunate gull – dropping pellet, parts, and poo in the process.

Gull-filled Owl Pellet 2 photo IMG_7722_zpsaa937367.jpgGull-filled Owl Pellet 1 photo IMG_7721_zps2170a66b.jpg

I cannot say for certain who the pellet perpetrator was in this case but will give it a hoot. Owls and raptors (daytime birds of prey) both cast pellets. I am guessing it to be from a Great-horned Owl due to the tremendous size and relatively good condition of remaining quills within. Snowy Owls also produce such pellets but rarely chuck them in a wooded setting. A Peregrine Falcon would be a likely raptor candidate – especially given their bird-oriented tastes – but from what I can decipher their pellets are much smaller and more amorphous (due to stronger stomach acids).

So there you have it. Cottonwoods and carnivorous fowl have a somewhat commensal* relationship in this neck of the woods (or foot of the water, as it were). These birds of prey were definitely barking up the right tree – even if it was really the only tree!

Eastern Cottonwood Bark photo IMG_7582_zpscd3fed88.jpg

 

*Definition time: Commensalism means a relationship in which one organism benefits while the other is relatively unaffected (in other words the Cottonwoods do not derive any benefit from the birds whereas the birds gain useful observation posts).

January 26, 2015

Wind Ghosts and Frozen Caterpillars

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 11:30 am

 

Rose Mallow in Winter photo IMG_7598_zpse8eda74c-1.jpg

A walk out on the dikes at the Pointe Mouillee State Game area in the middle of winter can be a bit like walking the Arctic Tundra. It’s little wonder that wintering Snowy Owls choose this place because it feels like home. Only broken cattail skeletons and clumped grasses serve as cover and because the dikes rise well above these there is no cover at all for the winter walker.  An infant breeze entering at lake grows into ferocious adulthood as it traverses the open expanse. In other words, it can be bitter cold even on “mild” days. The winter version of the marsh is not devoid of life, however, it’s just that you have work harder to find it.

 

Pointe Mouillee Marsh in January photo IMG_7654_zps254870ce-1.jpg

My last foray out onto the dikes was on a mid-20 degree day (that’s F, by the way – I don’t speak C). There was little wind, so the dreaded “Mouillee chill” was minimal.  A light snow refreshed the place and turned every Rose Mallow pod into an open cotton boll and highlighted the dome of every muskrat lodge in the ‘rat-pocked landscape.

Meadow Vole Tunnels in the Snow photo IMG_7651_zps87574d70-1.jpg

 

There was plenty of evidence that creatures were about on the previous evening. Countless Meadow Voles were taking advantage of the snow cover to forage on grasses under the snow. Their tunnels, evidenced by their fractured roofs and occasional exit holes, laced the dikes (see above).  Frustrated by such protective cover, predators can only hope to catch the slight movement of the snow in order to pinpoint the prey below. Brushed wing tips and talon marks indicate where one aerial predator attempted a halfhearted grab at an invisible morsel. White-footed Mice made frequent dashes across the open path during the night as well. Most executed a straight shot – slapping long tail marks from side to side as they went. The track of one individual, however, reveals a halted crossing, followed by a nervous retreat and then a renewed all-out dash (below). Perhaps it caught a glimpse of shadow from above or a movement from aside. You can never be too careful when you are a menu item.

White-footed Mouse Tracks in the Snow photo IMG_7672_zpsd408e265-1.jpg

 

Coyotes evidently patrol every inch of the place on their nightly rounds. Sitting down to contemplate the view, one of the canines left a familiar mark in the snow. Clear heel and hind foot prints and shifting front paw marks indicate that it might have paused to lick a small cut – as suggested by a spot of blood in the snow near the haunches. Last week my daughter’s Black Lab left a near identical mark (sans blood, of course) where it sat for several minutes to survey the back yard. Like two exclamation marks they mark the behavior of both wild and domestic dogs.

Coyote Sitting Tracks in the Snow photo IMG_7663_zpsa452103b-1.jpg

 

Perhaps the most surprising finds were several Tiger Moth caterpillars walking across the snow. I’ll remind you that even though the sun was peeking out from time to time, it was in the twenties. These hardy insects were slowly making their way across the surface. Due to their lightness they left no tracks and due to their speechlessness did not offer an explanation for their seemingly risky behavior.

Ruby Tiger Moth Caterpillar in January photo IMG_7603_zpsd58bcc54-1.jpg  Ruby Tiger Moth Caterpillar in January photo IMG_7608_zps9e6660d4-1.jpg

I believe they were Ruby Tiger Moth larvae – a worldwide species which feeds on a wide variety of plants such as goldenrod, ironweed and plantain. They overwinter under the snow as larvae and emerge to complete their growth and pupate in the late spring. They have a recorded habit of coming out onto the snow as caterpillars and can withstand freezing temperatures via a combination of anti-freeze saturated blood (full of so-called “crypt-protectors”) and solar energy trapping body hairs and black skin color.

Ruby Tiger Moth Caterpillar in January photo IMG_7612_zps06298f4d-1.jpg

 

I did not spot any Snowy Owls, and only found a loose feather of a Short-eared Owl, but was treated to the graceful moves a pair of Northern Harriers. These birds perfectly represent the spirit of the winter marsh.

Harrier over Pte. Mouillee Marsh photo IMG_7615_zps30e23b56-1.jpg  Northern Harrier (male) at Pte. Mouillee photo IMG_7613_zpsc8c099b1-1.jpg

These slender marsh hunters floated low over the cat-tails and canary grass hummocks searching for the sight and sound of mice and songbirds. Like ghosts they passed by on silent wings -riding the light breeze and rocking ever so slightly from its effect. Both birds were marked with white rumps and held their long narrow wings with a species-defining crook at the wrist. The male was pale gray – nearly white – with stark black wing tips (above) and the female was dark rufous brown (below).

Northern Harrier (female) at Pointe Mouillee photo IMG_76252_zps31d6cdcf-1.jpg

 

 

I tracked them for as long as I could but they vanished into the frigid landscape well before they should have been out of sight. Like many of the marsh secrets they probably chose to remain aloof and somewhat mysterious.

Northern Harrier (female) at Pointe Mouillee photo IMG_7625_zps941c309d-1.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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September 30, 2014

A Large Coffee with Two Earth Stars, Please –Amendum

Filed under: BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 10:49 am
Dog Stinkhorn photo 35250823-c171-4d7d-9d27-9f16f8c6f2d4_zps0db06cbc.jpg
Blogs, like fungi, pop up out of nowhere and grow old quickly – they soon rot away into obscurity. Because of this I feel the need to add something to my most recent offering before it too dissolves. You will recall that I was addressing the bark bed outside the local Tim Horton’s Coffee shop and the wonderful assortment of fungi that it offered. The Dog Vomit fungi, Earthstars and Bird’s Nest Fungi were worthy of attention according to my admittedly twisted view. This weekend a Dog Stinkhorn was added to the list.
Long and slender, this particular stinkhorn had a pock-marked orangish stem topped with a pointed slimy cap. These fungi emerge from a circular egg-like bud and a remnant of this “shell” was attached to the top. It is with some trepidation that I mention the reasons behind the name but will point out that it refers to the anatomy of a dog…a male dog, to be precise.
Stinkhorns, true to their name, are smelly “things.” Their stench ranges from fecal to rotten deer in character. One source ironically described the smell of the Dog Stinkhorn like “cat feces.” I was unable to take a personal sniff because it was right next to the car lane but it’s safe to say that it smelled to high heaven and stunk to low hell. All this stenchiness is meant to attract flies and invite them to tromp about the spore-laden goo covering the cap. These visitors leave with the spores betwixt their toes and therefore serve as a means of distribution.
The Dog Stinkhorn never made the menu and promptly disappeared within a few days. It probably means nothing, but I feel compelled to mention that a very large and creepingly silent crow was watching me the whole time I was photographing this fungi.  I cannot say for certain, but feel that this bird may have been working for Timmy Ho’s and…this is getting creepy, we’d better drop the subject for good.
A Watching Crow photo IMG_6598_zpse492c663.jpg

September 24, 2014

A Large Coffee with Two Earthstars, Please

Filed under: BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 5:26 pm
Earth Stars with a Large Coffee photo IMG_6404_zpsb92da212.jpg
I am fascinated by the fungi selection at the local Timmy Ho’s (that’s familiar-speak for the Tim Horton’s/ Coldstone Creamery coffee shop). I’m fairly sure this is not something the proprietors deliberately market, but in my mind it ranks right up there with their Cinnamon Rolls and Coffee. For some strange reason they are not on the menu board and I feel there is a missed opportunity here. Fortunately, there is ample opportunity to review the collection right outside your window as you wait in the car line.
These fungi sprout from the magic bark chips bordering the take-out lane. In years past, large patches of Dog Vomit Fungus have dominated the bark bed. Looking exactly like the name implies, they appear as amoeba-shaped blobs of yellowish puke (without the chunks). There could not have been much demand for this product and I assume this was why it was quietly removed from the list this year. The Earthstars and Bird’s Nests which replaced it, however, are a different story. They might well cut into the pastry sales– especially after we give them a closer look. Each has an intriguing lifestyle to go along with their intriguing appearance.

Earth Stars photo IMG_6394_zps3113dbde.jpg

Earth Stars photo IMG_6399_zps346ffdae.jpg

The Tim Horton’s Earthstars are especially robust examples of their kind. These unique organisms look like miniature white puffballs when they initially pop out of the ground (or the chips in this case). The outer layer splits and peels back to expose an even smaller puffball inside. This central portion is full of micro spores which are ejected from the center hole in dirty little puffs when disturbed.

Earth Star photo IMG_6401_zps58bbae71.jpg      Earth Star photo IMG_6400_zps90b2bbbb.jpg

The “petals” on an open Earthstar expand or contract according to relative humidity. Wet conditions compel them to curl backwards – detaching the fungus from its base and lifting it, spider-like, off the surface. Dryer conditions then cause the petals to curve inward and return the structure to a roundish shape. Aerodynamically free and clear to follow the whims of the winds, the earth star will roll across the landscape like a tumbleweed and spread the spores to other Tim Horton’s.

Bird's Nest Fungi photo IMG_6426_zps342c07d7.jpg

While Earthstars walk and roll, the tiny Birds Nest fungi blast their spores into the surrounding world. There is little need to explain why these things are called what they are. One look shows each fungus to be a blackish “nest” containing 4 to 5 flattened “eggs” inside. To say that the eggs actually look more like Lentil beans and that the nest looks more like a funnel spoils the simplicity of this picture, so I’ll try to refrain from mentioning this again and stick with the bird analogy.

Bird's Nest Fungi photo IMG_6429_zpsf745a77f.jpg

Bird's Nest Fungi photo IMG_6430_zps550b01d0.jpg

Each nest egg, called a peridole, contains a “yolk” –in reality a spore sac -attached to a tightly coiled cord with a glue ball at its end. The whole unit, the shell of the “egg” in this increasingly awkward description, is loosely attached to the base of the nest via a fragile stem.
The eggs violently hatch upon being struck by rain drops from a heavy shower. As random drops pummel the open nest they are funneled to the bottom, rip open the eggs, and propel the spore case into the air. The coiled cord on the spore sac unravels and the sticky end flings about in until it strikes, and attaches to, an elevated plant stem a few inches off the ground. Dangling from this lofty (a relative term when it comes to lowly fungi) perch, the spore sac bursts and sends forth its load of dusty cargo.
Walking earthstars and fungal cannonballs make Tim Bits and Pumpkin Donuts sound rather lame don’t they? I’ll take mine with one cream and no sugar, please

Bird's Nest Fungi with a Large Coffee photo IMG_6435_zps990fe6a7.jpg

May 31, 2014

Red Squirrels and Rust

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 3:45 pm
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In nature, things are always changing- beaver ponds to meadows, meadows to forests, Hanna Montana deteriorates into Miley Cyrus etc. Nothing really remains the same. Even sturgeons, those timeless bastions of bottom feeding, change individual form as they grow from fry to formidable fish. They also, like all organisms, go through daily and monthly changes depending on seasonal and courtship needs etc. In short, nature is a dynamic and not a static entity.
Much of the joy of nature watching revolves around observing both long term and seasonal changes. Of these two, however, seasonal changes are the most accessible for the curious naturalist (“phenology” for those of you working on a crossword puzzle). Birders are keen to minute plumage changes and some of them can get in an exhaustive description of a 2nd year Herring Gull before their first sip of Green Tea in the morning. Green Thumbers are all about growing seasons. A Brown Thumber, such as myself, is fully capable of sucking the joy out of a simple seasonal observation by encumbering the reader with extraneous details. It is time for me to do so again.
Let’s take Cedar Apple Rust and Red Squirrels as two examples to illustrate “The Pageant –pageant- pageant Of-of-of Nature-nature-nature” (he says with a booming echo-chamber voice). These two are rarely mentioned in the same sentence but both organisms share a reddish coloration and a period of dramatic change over the past month.
I took a look at the Cedar Apple Rust gall in a previous blog and won’t rehash the topic except to bring us up to snuff. The gall, a hard meteorite-like growth with multiple “eyes”, is found on the branches of Red Cedar trees. It is the alternate stage of a type of apple rust called Cedar Hawthorn Rust which spends one year on the leaves of hawthorn trees and next few years as a gall on Red Cedar. It takes several years for the cedar galls to mature and during this time they remain relatively dormant. I left off with this stage in my previously mentioned blog with a promise that I’d come back when they explode. This spring, true to my word, I returned to witness this wonderfully odd transformation.

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The Spring rains incite these galls to exude long gelatinous “horns” in the manner of a Chia Pet from Hell. These structures, called telial horns, bear millions of tiny two-celled spores which float off into the air to infect Hawthorn Trees. Over the course of the spring season, the galls and their crop of snot horns dry up and re-swell with each passing weather system – releasing a new crop of spores each time.

 photo Red-CedarAppleGallintheSpring4_zps719666ea.jpg     photo RedCedarAppleGallintheSpring2_zpsb39640ea.jpg

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Each cedar gall is good for up to 10 releases before being tapped out. Because the cycle plays out again and again every year, you can catch the annual show if you time your visits properly. As in all cycles there are good years and bad years (which gives some hope that Miley Cyrus will outgrow her fungal stage and return to dormancy).
The spring transformation of the Red Squirrel is far less dramatic than the Cedar –Cyrus thing. As mammals these expresso charged little rodents run through an annual molt cycle. They undergo a fall and spring do-over. Again, I have addressed this before but I was so amazed at the sudden visible change in one of my Dollar Lake squirrel that I feel compelled to share it (and, of course, explain it until it is no longer fun).
Red Squirrels undergo a spring and a fall molt. The two occur in opposite directions. The fall molt goes basically from back to front while the spring molt goes front to back. A good way to remember this is to reverse the normal phrasing we use for remembering time changes thus: “Spring back, Fall forward.” Remember this for it will serve you well in later life. This might be one of the qualifying questions asked by St. Peter when you ascend to the pearly gates.
Molting is a gradual process and hard to notice when in progress. It varies between individuals, but most Red Squirrels start spring molt by mid-April and complete it by June. Some individuals have yet to molt (as this backyard Red still in winter coat as of the last week of May). A comparison of the two pictures of my notch-eared friend, taken one month apart, will tell most of the story regarding the Spring molt. The first shot, taken in late April, shows the first stages and the second, snapped in late May, reveals a fully summarized squirrel.

 photo Notch-earedRedSquirrelApril262014_zpsd8bce8ee.jpg   photo Notch-earedRedSquirrelMay232014_zps63870b4d.jpg

You’ll notice in the first shot that the squirrel was still primarily in winter coat with grayish brown sides, a reddish back stripe and tail, ear tufts, and a dirty white belly. There was only a hint of a dark side stripe. A closer look, however, shows that this animal was already in molt. The face and eye ring are already garbed in short hair while a fuzzy top knot of winter hair remains.
By the time I took the second shot, the process was complete. The animal was covered with short reddish hairs with a clear black side stripe bordering a bright white belly. This is a portrait of a summer squirrel.
We missed the intermediate stages of the molt, but I can tell you what happened. The change began on the nose, chin, and feet. The process is so consistent that it began on the front feet and on the inner edge of the hind feet. The sides of the head go before the top and the rest continues along the sides and back until ending at the rump (a natural ending for sure). Somewhere along the way the ears tufts are dropped.
So there you have it. A squirrel and a spore ball can give us a small insight into a massive world of natural change. I guarantee neither subject would have been brought up in polite conversation until now. It is your duty to carry the ball and tell them something that they don’t really want to know.

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