August 17, 2014
August 3, 2014
It is easy to imagine the inner working of a squirrel’s mind. They can be excused for being continually distracted because nuts must certainly dominate their thinking. Why else would they stop in the middle of a street in the midst of heavy traffic? “Nuts, cars, danger, nuts, nuts, nuts, cars, nuts…” is not a healthy thought pattern (and one that usually ends tragically after the fourth “nut.”).
It is unfair, of course, to pursue this line of reasoning. Squirrels are multidimensional being – not as fascinating and deep as wolves or chimpanzees perhaps, but complicated in their own way. They are not all about nuts and would likely go nuts eating nothing but nuts. During the summer, when nuts are scarce, they become fungal connoisseurs and actively seek mushrooms.
Given that many of the top chefs in the world are fungal connoisseurs and are well respected for it, our bushy-tailed rodent friends are certainly worthy of elevated human perception. I wonder how many great chefs have been hit by cars when pondering culinary thoughts and ignoring traffic? This would be worth investigating. But I diverge.
The mushrooming skills exhibited by the local Grey Squirrels are something to behold. They eagerly devour any ‘shroom that dares to poke its gilled head above the ground and, I must say, look refreshed while doing it. I wouldn’t dare suggest that mushrooms often have a nutty taste lest any nearby squirrel goes postal at the mere mention of the word “nut” (at least in the month of July and August).
I am unwilling to taste the mushrooms that the Greys are currently harvesting in my yard. I therefore will not have to put myself in the position of declaring their nut-like taste. By general appearance they seem to be members of the Russula family. This large fungal group runs the gamut from being highly edible to bland to poisonous in terms of human consumption. The mushrooms in this squirrel discussion are gilled and have large reddish caps, easily crumbled, which are somewhat turned up at the edges on larger specimens. These caps are sticky and shiny when wet and often have pine needles or detritus sticking to them. Overall, this description matches that of the Blackish-Red Russulas (by the way, this is their actual species name and not one I just made up). It’s probably not worth mentioning, but this species is not poisonous but relatively inedible due to its “acrid taste.”
Our taste is has nothing to do with squirrel taste. Oddly enough, squirrels have no aversion to poisonous mushrooms so this is a moot point when it comes to edibility. One species of Russula, the Emetic Russula, is quite poisonous to humans but is eagerly eaten by Red Squirrels without effect (well, other than leaving them with a sense of satisfaction).
There are several color varieties of mushroom-eating Grey Squirrels about. All are the same species, but several are black and one is a “normal” reddish brown grey squirrel (or is it a blackish-red grey squirrel?). There is no particular modus operandi when attacking mushrooms, although they seem to go for the caps. One of them hung upside-down while devouring his prize while yet another served it up on the ground. It held the outer edge of the cap like a wheel and took bites out of the rim as it rotated. Sometimes they will simply take a few bites out of a standing mushroom and leave it in place.
I’m not sure why, but these fellows never seem to finish a whole mushroom. Often they’ll drop one, half consumed, and then move on to other things. I suppose it could be due to a mental distraction – perhaps feeling the sudden urge to cross a road or stopping to check the status of the ripening crop of nuts, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. It is probably due to the sheer abundance of the fungal treats and is equivalent to an overindulgent child leaving the pizza crust.
May 31, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
May 21, 2014
A miniature forest of pale straws has taken over the near lake portion of my Dollar Lake property. Although rising several inches above the grass they are not obvious except in the low rays of the morning sun. It is appropriate that they are at their visual best in the “Dawn Time” because these plants, called Horsetails, are literally from the Dawn Times of earth history.
Although they may be small now, Horsetails come from a giant past. Perhaps the term “living fossil” is often overused (especially in reference to ancient aunts or family patriarchs) but these plants have been around for at least 300 million years and certainly qualify. In comparison, the dinosaurs are newbies and wannabes – having appeared and flamed out as the horsetails stood by and watched with unblinking stares.
The first members of this group attained tree stature at a time before trees were even a twinkle in evolution’s eye during the Carboniferous Period. These swamp plants shaded the first amphibians and provided perches for giant dragonflies. One early type, called Calamites, grew well over 60 feet in height on hefty trunks nearly two feet in diameter. Fossil imprints, such as the one I am holding in the photo below) record a plant that, except in scale, is identical with its modern descendants.
There are many different species of horsetail and all share “horstaily “features such as jointed ribbed stems and spore reproduction (none of this new-fangled flowering stuff). The plants grow via underground rhizomes which send up two different types of stems – fertile and non-fertile. And you thought I was going to say big ones and little ones, didn’t you!
Non-fertile stems are green and most produce whorls of strappy leaves (which just happen to make them look like horsetails, by the way). A detailed look at these stems will reveal rows of white silcates which give it a tough exterior and creates an abrasive quality useful for scouring out pots and pans (thus the common pioneer name of scouring rush).
Technically, it may be best to call my ancient little plants by their formal name of Equisetum arvense but let’s be civil about it and stick to Field Horsetail. My miniature crop consisted of early spring fertile stems only. These shoots are ghostly pale due to their lack of chlorophyll. Their only function is to produce a spore-bearing cone and then wither away. They rarely last more than a week.
The cones, or strobiles if you prefer-bile, themselves are made up of multiple scales which look like up-side down flowers – complete with petals. Tiny spores are produced by this structure and they drift off with each passing wind gust.
I teased several of my horsetails into releasing spore clouds and counted as many spores as I could. I reached 125 before….well, actually, no I didn’t. That was a shameless lie just to keep your attention long enough to tell you that you can’t see the individual spores with the naked eye. Under the magnification of a high power lens or scanning microscope, however, they take on a very interesting form.
Each spore is tightly wrapped with four elaters or tendrils upon release. Moisture sensitive, they un-furl like springs which aide in the spore’s motion. The enlarged foot pads at the end of each tendril give the whole thing a strangely alien appearance. One thinks of those alien invaders from “War of the Worlds.”
These horsetail spores are, of course, the exact opposite of alien forms because they have been an original part of our planet’s life for a very very – did I say very? – long time. We are alien forms by comparison.
May 15, 2014
I did several versions of a Chipmunk for my daughter’s baby shower invitation and it took a while to decide on the final version. She insisted on a woodland theme for the arrival of this child (and when pregnant women insist on something it is smart to comply). This theme will continue into the decor of the baby’s room and might even extend to the child itself. Who knows, he might be raised as a small woodland animal. If she and her husband start calling the baby’s room a “den” or “burrow” then there will be cause for some alarm. As a career naturalist who raised his children in the “woodland ways” I just may be seeing my chickens come home to roost.
At any rate, the issue of the invitation, the cake, and the room decoration for the shower revolves around a nature/woody theme. As invitation master (a self-applied title) it was my duty to come up with an appropriate woody type product upon which the bare realities of “when”, “where”, and “for who” will be draped. It was not as easy as I had hoped.
Apart from the fact this was for a pregnant female – an entity pickier than even the biggest of corporate bosses – it also had to pass my muster. The primary issue was finding the right woodland creature and this demanded some research and inspiration. As you can see, I am not a “clip art” kind of guy.
My wife and I opened up our tiny Dollar Lake cabin a few weeks ago. In that cozy woodland setting I figured there would be plenty of inspiration, and there was. Critters paraded by, as if on review, and vied for the cutest title. A curious Painted Turtle bobbed to the surface close to the dock, a beautiful pair of Ring-necked Ducks landed for a visit, and a busy Phoebe darted about for insects. All of these critters, while fascinating, are not really “cute” in the pregnant sort of way. Two of them don’t even fit the woodland theme at all. I could make an appealing little Phoebe character but the grayness of such a bird rules it out. Sorry Phoebe, maybe next time when the shower theme is insect-eating birds.
I have a love/hate relationship with squirrels and there are plenty running around my home yard to provide ample opportunity for consideration. At Dollar Lake, however, the squirrels came in all shape and manner of being, so they had to be reviewed for their fuzziness factor. The black Gray Squirrel was just plain creepy and the Fox Squirrel just plain too fat. The Red Squirrel put in a very good appearance. I am partial to Reds, as you may know regarding my home yard squirrels, but this one was a stranger to me (and I to him).
Perched in the White Oak over the shed, he displayed unusual patience when approached. A battle scarred veteran with a torn ear, he was appealing none the less. But, it was the resident Chipmunk that finally caught my eye. He ultimately won his place as the feature creature on the invitation.
Cheeks fill with acorns he dashed to and from the shed. At one point he piled through the dry leaves and popped up with a prize nut which demanded immediate attention. He flittered up to the old pine stump by my porch and dismembered the acorn with great skill. Then he was off as if blown by a gust of wind.
The first cartoon version of this creature was cute enough – in fact it even passed inspection from the queen bee right away. I pictured a perky Chipper, cheeks chock full of nuts, and obviously very happy with his situation (in other words with lots of “gifts” lying about in the form of acorns). As art is was fine.
Unfortunately I was unsatisfied. It was cute but not “chippy” enough. Looking back at my photos of the cabin Chipmunk I was struck by the fact that these critters have very prominent noses. My first artistic chipmunk had a mere suggestion of a nose. No, my next effort needed an enlarged honker in order to pass my naturalist muster.
So, I re-did the thing and came up with Chipper no. 2. I was much happier with this version because it was a cartoon which was true to the animal depicted and, most importantly, it also received approval from the daughter. The invitations, complete with the honkier chipmunk, went out this week without further alteration.
I plan on releasing a live chipmunk at the shower. I’m sure the ladies, my woodland daughter, and future grandchild, will appreciate how animated an actual woodland creature can be in a confined space!
May 10, 2014
The crayfish towers in my backyard grow faster and higher than the crabgrass, cress, and dandelions do. (I also have some actual grass in my yard but that’s hardly worth mentioning). Each spring, the Burrowing Crayfish (aka Devil Crayfish) pile up dozens of lofty mud turrets. Some, reaching 8 inches in height, cast long dark shadows over the evening lawn which rival those cast by the local mole hills.
The first diggings literally pop up overnight and gain stature over the course of a week or so. They tunnel deep into wet substrate and deposit the excavated soil/mud around one of the opening at the surface. Other entrances are left un-turreted and open flush with the surface. Eventually they complete their work and plug the tower entrances – apparently coming and going via their “naked” entrances.
They are allowed to build their noble chimneys without obstruction because my yard is very wet and the water table is only a foot or so below level surface. A spring stroll across the yard is like walking on a sponge. I don’t get a chance to start mowing until well after the “normal” season for such activity has commenced (at least according to my neighbors who start mowing as soon as the snow is less than 1 inch in depth). In other words, I don’t get an opportunity to knock these towers down – not that I want to – until well into May.
Burrowing Crayfish work and feed under the cover of night so their new construction efforts aren’t revealed until the rising sun of morning. These creatures, although very common, are rarely seen. Last week I took it upon myself to catch one of these clawed arthropods “in the act” and capture it on film…er, digital bits of imagery.
It is assumed that the chimneys are basically the result of excavation and don’t really serve a purpose. In other words, when the digging is done they are normally allowed to collapse on their own. But, it does appear that there is some instinctive need for these turrets early in the season. In other words -again – when they are done they are not really done and will be repaired at least until late spring.
My daughter’s dog accidentally knocked over one of the completed (plugged) towers a while ago. Her antics (the dog’s, not the daughter’s) completely exposed the burrow at ground level. The crayfish re-built much of the turret overnight. The fresh work was apparent as a ring of dark moist soil around the hole. So, I knocked another one of the finished chimneys over and planned on a nocturnal visit to watch the show.
Under the dim glow of a warm quarter moon I snuck across the squishy lawn using my tiny, but intense, Yoda keychain flashlight to illuminate the way. Sure enough, the little Devil was already at work as evidenced by glistening mud pellets piled up on one side. I waited patiently and was able to capture the beast as it returned multiple times with new material and tutored me in the art of chimney building.
The crayfish first appeared at the entrance as a very wet blob of grayish clay. Paired pincers, poking out from the blob, were the only indication that a creature was the impelling force behind the mud ball. In the manner of a bulldozer, the crayfish forced the material up and over the edge. The large pincers (called Chela, if you are a crossword person) are used to contain the sides of the blob while the first pair of legs apparently serve to take up the rear. The whole is retained by the creature’s “face” – leaving the turreted eyes free to search for danger. A few probing pats with the claws secured the mud into position.
Each surface visit was punctuated by an absence of a few minutes as the crayfish descended to the depths to excavate some more material. It was sensitive to my presence and any movement on my part would send it back down for a few seconds, although the camera flash didn’t seem to register any reaction.
On the following morning, I could see that the burrowing beast had completed a small wall around the burrow entrance. Based on what I saw, it would have completed this task within a few hours. I’m assuming the rest of the night was spent feeding and flushing the camera-flash stars out of his eyes. The chimney was sealed shut a couple of nights later. I’ll let this crayfish construction stand for a week or two more until I am able to fire up the mower.
April 25, 2014
I went to the Detroit Zoo with one thing in mind and left with another thing to take its place. The new beaver exhibit was done and I thought it might be fun to catch the critters in action and get a few detail shots etc. That was my intention, anyhow. Never mind that I’d read that the new beavers, Ward and June, were “shy” and that they were basically no-shows for the visitors. Someone else told me the same story personally, yet I persisted. I went anyway and was not disappointed in being disappointed.
Not only were the beavers in absentia but it appeared, based on the wilting lettuce and un-chewed cottonwood branches placed out for them, that they had not been out for some time. There were plenty of fat Rainbow Trout swimming in the viewing pond but no beaver. It was a great Rainbow Trout exhibit. I will not blame the keepers for the faults of their kept – beavers are basically nocturnal critters (it was daylight, by the way) and, who knows, perhaps the Beavers were inside the lodge making little cleavers! The Red Pandas were also in hiding, so they were not the only ones being anti-social.
The lack of living beavers prompted me to look at the labels. I’m ashamed to admit it, but as a person who once made his living writing labels I rarely read them unless forced by circumstance. Beaverlessness was just such a circumstance. I shouldn’t have done so.
I watched as hordes of small children charged the underwater viewing window screaming bee-er, bee-er (meaning beaver, not refreshment) and changing their chant to bish, bish (small childeese for fish). Their helpful parents, seeking to salvage the experience, would look up and read the large label that says something to the effect that “if the beavers are not out, then look up at the monitor and see what they were doing last night.” I did the same thing after I charged the glass and saw the invisible beavers.
Apparently Sir David Attenborough and a set of mountains were in the beaver enclosure the previous night. The video showed beavers in a mountain pond setting with background narration and music. In one segment there was a grainy black and white night camera view of the interior of a lodge with “beavers” moving around.
“Look”, cooed one mother who happened to look up just as this sequence was playing, “there they are!” The problem was that the pictured “beavers” were actually muskrats taking up lodging in a beaver lodge. The distinctive voice of Sir David could be heard explaining that “no one is really sure if the beavers much care about these interlopers but…” Our mother’s excitement faded off when she realized that it was only a documentary movie and she hurried her children off to the Red Panda exhibit.
The experience all fell apart upon looking at the other labels. The photo illustrations used to depict the fascinating lifestyle of Castor canadensis implied that beavers are able to morph into Nutrias and Muskrats during the course of their daily lives. Perhaps the muskrats in the Attenborough video actually were beavers in disguise – fooling even that seasoned old naturalist. When asked to display their ever-growing front incisors, the beavers turn into Nutrias and fool everyone else into thinking they are illegal immigrants from South America.
You might recall an earlier post in which I blasted the Detroit Zoo’s magazine for using Nutria pictures to illustrate their article about the up-coming beaver exhibit last year. Simple mistake, I thought…stupid mistake given their obvious differences but zoo people and editors (at least most of them) are human and prone to mistakes. Certainly this was a “one off” thing. Well, it wasn’t.
There were two Muskrat photos (see beginning photo and below) and one Nutria portrait (see toothy beast above center) on the beaver display panels. Remember, this is a brand new exhibit minted in 2013. There is no excuse for this. None. This is what happens when Jr. High students are enlisted to make labels based on Wikipedia articles and not professionals. Is it really that hard to tell the difference between a Muskrat, Nutria, and a Beaver? Really? Zoo educators don’t seem to have the same issue when differentiating the African and Chilean Flamingos. Nor would they dream of putting a Black Rhino photo to illustrate the White Rhino exhibit.
Beavers have been known to do a pretty good imitation of Chilean Flamingos when trying to spy on Nutria colonies in South America, so I’d advise that the zoo personnel to be very careful.
So as not to seem like a curmudgeon, I must say that I was fully impressed by another display at the Detroit Zoo. There is a free-ranging colony of Black-Crowned Night Herons near the Sweet Treats concession stand. These are wild birds and not part of the caged crowd. An excess of 60 of the pint-sized herons have returned to the rookery and are ready to resume the breeding season. One of the docents, exuding much more accuracy than the beaver labels, said that the birds returned last week. The rookery has been an annual feature at the zoo for nearly a decade.
While the pavement under the trees may be a dangerous place to stand, one can view the birds if you stand off to side and gawk. Most of the human visitors were not aware of this colony when first approaching the concession stand but most wised up upon seeing the white-wash zone beneath it. Several warned their adventurous children not to stand in this “danger zone” but I noticed a few kids daring each other to do exactly that. The herons (at least I assume they were herons and not beavers) were not in an especially poopy mood on this day but I can imagine what things will be like later in the spring when young are in the nests.
During my visit they were apparently re-establishing pair bonds and claiming nest platforms. Some were shifting a few twigs about, but most were engaged in preening or snuggling side by side with their prospective mates. A cold wind prompted them to tuck beaks deep into their breast feathers – their ornamental head plumes sticking up like Dr. Seuss characters.
Like the beavers, Night Herons are mostly nocturnal and one would have to be in the park at night, along with Sir David, in order to catch them flying off to feed in the zoo ponds. Unlike the Nutri-beavers, they are worth the entry fee.
April 20, 2014
There are places one may expect to find pelicans and places where you wouldn’t. If you are a regular reader of my blog (a trait that should qualify you for sainthood) you’ll recall that I expressed a northerner’s fascination with the Brown Pelicans around Tampa region. I expected to see them there and there they were. I did not expect to see White Pelicans in Illinois last weekend, although I probably should have.
I’ve seen a few of these monstrous white oddities in Michigan over the years. A few individuals (sometimes up to dozen strong) show up on rare, but regular, occasions at the Pte. Mouillee State Game Area in S.E. Michigan. One can never expect to see them there but their appearance is not totally unexpected. I spotted two there last summer. Had I of been up on my migration knowledge I probably should have expected to see some pelicans when on a recent trip to visit my brother Dan in Rockford, Illinois. It was all about timing and location.
We were on a short “bro” trip to the tiny rural town of Byron not far from Rockford. Rockford itself is about an hour west of Chicago in northern Illinois and Byron is located southwest of town. We took the scenic route which followed the route of the Rock River (the waterway eventually spills into the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill.). For a mid-April day it was crappy weather and one which ended up with wind driven white-outs and several inches of snow on the ground.
Against this dismal backdrop the big white birds in the river stood out like so many sore thumbs. They were unexpected (didn’t I already say that?) and I shouted out “Pelicans” and waved a pointy finger in their general direction as we passed. I guess I have a tendency to do this kind of thing. I recall a time forty-five years ago when I nearly caused my dad to careen our car off the road when I announced that I’d just spotted a Pileated Woodpecker flying into the tree line. I guess I did more than just announce the fact – I trumpeted. This time, Dan had the grace to act as if what I was saying was true and calmly turned around, although in retrospect it was an un-believable statement (equivalent to shouting Flamingo or Water Buffalo). Fortunately the pelicans I thought I saw were actually pelicans.
Spotting these birds made up for some of that foolish April weather. There were about twenty or so birds roosting on a gravel bar, along with an equal number of contrasting Cormorants, and a few were swimming in the gray choppy water. One of them briefly took to the air and displayed the enormous 9 foot wingspan (second largest in North America) and black-edged wings. All were decked out in their breeding plumage. One bird in particular did his best to show off his finery. Actually I say “he” but since both sexes are alike I should just call it Pat or Leslie.
From the light yellow wash on the white body feathers and yellow skin patch surrounding the eye, to the multiple shades of pink, orange, and yellow on the bill the spring coloration of the White Pelican is all about subtlety. A distinctive black patch located dead center on the throat pouch adds a touch of dignity. Add to this a prominent crest and two upper beak projections and you have a unique sight (Yes indeedy do!).The beak knobs – actually flattened keels – drop off after the season of love ends and the subtle colors fade to basic yellow orange.
Although these birds seemed out of place to me, they apparently are a regular sight along the Mississippi Valley during spring and fall migration. Their appearance is a much anticipated event as the pelicans make their way north from the Gulf to their breeding grounds in the northern plains of Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, and Central Canada. They’ll remain for a few days and then move on.
Pelicans are expected around mid-April in Illinois which is exactly when I was there (wow, ain’t it serendipitous). The migrants don’t traditionally venture as far east as the middle Rock River and this really was the only unusual thing about the whole affair. As the birds slowly rebound from their earlier disastrous encounter with DDT they are becoming more common and I – and you – can expect to see more of them in places where you’d least expect them.
April 12, 2014
It was a sparkling early spring morning at Point Mouillee – the kind of day that drives the final nails into winter’s coffin. The shallows of the Huron River mouth were bustling with avian life.
A dozen or so Lesser Yellowlegs were probing the silt for tidbits. They nervously bobbed and launched into short twittering flights. They are animated little creatures – always in a rush to get back to where they started. A few paused to bask in the morning sun and one even allowed itself to doze while balancing on one leg.
The energy of the Yellowleg cluster was matched by a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls. These dainty gulls were also walking the shallows in search of prey (minnows) but due to their short legs they were dragging belly feathers. A number of the birds displayed their breeding colors – or, in this case – their stark combination of inky black head, gray back, and white body. Other birds, like the one pictured here, were still in winterized garb with gray pates and prominent black “ear” spots. Napoleon was not among them.
Waterfowl of the duck kind were everywhere. Spastic mini-flocks of Blue-winged Teal (see above) darted back and forth along with Shovelers, Bluebills, Mallards and Coots. And the muskrats were busy doing what muskrats are always doing. They were eating tender aquatic plants and swimming about through the muddy waters. Although most of the aforementioned birds will move on, the Mouillee muskrats remain to swim and eat and swim and….
A pair of slow beating wings hovered over all this action in the form of Northern Harriers. These lanky birds of prey are also a year-round feature of the marshes. They will prey upon muskrats and duck but make most of their living off voles (as well as frogs, snakes, small birds, and even crayfish). The appearance of these two birds did nothing to alarm the yellowlegs or gulls.
The Northern Harrier is found across the globe and is as common in the reed marshes of England as in the cat-tail marshes of North America (which are becoming reed marshes just like their European counterpart). Derived from the old-English word “to harry, plunder, or ravage” the common name is also oddly applied to track athletes and to rabbit chasing dogs. They do plunder rodent populations but do it because they have to – not because they seek treasures. The genus name Circus is applied to all the world’s harriers and this name makes a bit more sense in that it refers to a circle – as in circling hawks.
Harriers are easy to identify when in flight. They glide low over the marsh grasses with their wings held at a low dihedral angle. When in sustained glide they rock side to side like giant Monarch butterflies. The wing tips are swept back and pointed, the head small and blunt, and the tail is long and rectangular. Above all, or I should say behind all, they display a white rump patch which is visible from a great distance away.
This pair were probably both females, or at the very least immature birds, due their dark coloration. Males are ghostly grey while the youngsters and females are dark. Later one of them revealed a set of yellow eyes and proved to be a female.
The birds split up when one continued across the river while the other broke off and descended to the ground as if capturing some hapless meadow mouse on the dike. There it proceeded to rip asunder whatever was held between its sharp talons. They don’t often allow for close approach out here on the open marsh, so it was a treat to be treated to a close look.
Up close, Harriers prove to be very different from other hawks. They have extremely long legs (maybe the reason track runners are called harriers?), small owl-like heads, and dramatically curved beaks. The facial features are explained by the fact that they hunt using a combination of sight and sound. Like owls they use facial discs to listen for scurrying prey.
My approach flushed the bird which clutched a chunk of prey as it retreated a hundred yards away to finish its meal. The object of the Harrier interest turned out to be a dead coot. It was a very dead coot that had been long dead before the Harrier happened upon it. Tearing out chunks of the well-aged meat, the hungry predator proved to be a willing scavenger. It was both the grim reaper of life and a picker of bones.
April 6, 2014
Several years ago I tried to get a live opossum to play dead. After chasing the thing for a half mile through the reeds I was the one who ended up near death with exhaustion. Everything I did – yelling, waving, roaring – failed to convince the animal to shut down. It was a slow motion chase of futility.
I later did some reading up and discovered that not all ‘possums are prone to “fainting.” Some individuals, when faced with danger, will drop like a stone and stay dropped for hours, while others will remain stone-faced in the face of adversity. It was just my luck that I’d encountered the latter type of beast.
A month ago I came upon another wandering opossum and vowed not to repeat my earlier experience. I slowly approached and snapped a few pictures. It was walking just fine (in the usual pace of a drunken man trying to cross the road) when I first spotted it. Gradually perceiving my approach the creature glanced up with beady eyes and lapsed into death right in front of my eyes. No waving, screaming, or imitating an approaching car was required. Yes, I had a possum playing ‘possum right in front of me and all I had to do was walk up to it.
The mortal remains in front of me displayed the frost-bitten ears and scarred tail typical of most northern Opossums. This individual had just gone through a very bad winter indeed.
The “dead” beast allowed me to touch it and yank on its tail but was not completely out of it. Every motion on my part elicited an enhanced sneer on the ’possum’s part. The sneer widened or narrowed like some sort of proximity meter whenever I brought my hand near then pulled it back (see movie here). When pulled by the tail Mr. Opossum came back to life enough to dig in with its claws and resist dragging. When the pulling and prodding stopped the thing pretty much gave up on the act and resorted to just plain sneering as if to say “O.K., genius, I’m not really dead and you can leave me alone now.”
This whole thing reminded me of a similar death routine performed by the Hog-nosed Snake. This critter will roll onto its back, flop out a limp tongue, and even emit a foul rotting smell. Apparently some ‘possums will also emit a stench, although my ‘possum did not. But to get to the point, whenever a “dead” Hognose is flipped right side up it will roll back into the upside down position. Again, this is a case where the animal has some control over its actions but instinct has to follow a rigid script. Dead snakes lay on their back and there is nothing you can do about it.
The subtleties of fake death are fascinating. Like the snake, the opossum’s ruse is not totally involuntary. It does not freeze uncontrollably – as some folks will state. The animal’s pulse will drop but the individual is aware of what’s going on and will adjust the act where necessary. These are not the actions of a comatose individual. In fact, since the grimace exposes a formidable array of teeth (opossums have more teeth than any other North American animal) it is possible that this part of the ploy is meant as a form of intimidation and thus the reason it is emphasized.
As stated earlier, not all individuals react the same way. Some not only will refuse to faint but will actually hiss and open up their formidable toothy maw as a threat. They never actually carry out this implied threat. Of course, if they did attack then it wouldn’t be a threat any more would it? Any attacking ‘possum would soon loose membership in the Marsupials of America Club.
This calls into question the whole necessity of feigning death in the first place. It is assumed that going limp will confuse predators who need to kill their own prey. Granted, any fox falling for such a trick would have to be pretty dense. It is likely that the act would only work if it is employed with the full stink, limp, I am truly dead and rotten scheme in action.
I ended my interaction with the semi-comatose and somewhat disgusted Opossum and picked it up by the tail and walked it over to the edge of the pavement. Cars do not recognize the difference between dead opossums, “dead” opossums, and bad actors.