March 16, 2014

Habitat for Huge Manatees & Fine Little Fiddlers

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:26 pm

It would be easy to re-enact 90% of my experience with the manatees of Florida’s Gulf Coast. All I would need to do is submerge some large potatoes in a tub of water and surround it with a throng of Lego people. The Lego form to my left would be my daughter, my partner in crime on this Florida adventure, while the rest would be various refugees from Star Wars, Pirate, and other play sets.  O.K., this isn’t  -and I realize it – but because of the commercial nature of Homosassa Springs it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the manatees on “display” there are wild animals. It is the perfect Habitat for Humanity and Huge Manatees. Ignore the crowds and their comments and you will discover fascination with the potato- beasts in the water below.

The manatees of Florida need to cluster around warm springs and power plant discharges during the winter. They cannot withstand temperatures below 68 degrees F. The waters of Homosassa Spring are consistently 72 degrees F and offer a winter spa opportunity for these essentially tropical beasts. The spring waters flow into the Homosassa River and journey a short distance to the Gulf but the cold-season manatees stick tight to the sandy bottom of the outflow.

A small herd of about 12 animals was present on the day of our visit. Most of them were lying motionless and spud-like on the bottom.  One large cow and her calf ventured out into, and returned from, the open river during our time there (prompting a nearby dad to proclaim “Look there’s a calf and a baby” to his young daughter. She reminded him that he meant to say “calf and cow” and he remained silent for the next ten minute).  The only other visible action involved a bob to the surface every few minutes for a breath of fresh air through their nostrils. The nose holes are controlled by a muscle which opens then seals them shut before the creature submerges.


From above the most – in fact the only – distinctive feature of their body outline were the large flattened tails. It was surprising (to me, anyway) that very few of them displayed any large nicks or notches in these rubbery appendages and only one displayed significant boat prop scars. The eyes were visible only as small puckers located among the face folds. Because their eyelids are circular affairs this creates the delightful star eyed look so popular on the million or so figurines and manatee toys for sale at the nearby gift shop.

Manatees (West Indian Manatees to be precise) are remotely related to the elephants and because of this ancestry they can claim a source for their bulk (up to around 1,200 pounds and 12 feet long), vegetarian diet, and their tooth arrangement. Like elephants they have a procession of teeth that migrate forth like a conveyor belt. Old worn teeth are shed off the leading edge as newer teeth join the row from the back. There are never more than 6 teeth in each jaw at any time.

Wikipedia, that e-spring of flowing facts, figures, and fallacies offers the fascinating tidbit that the name Manatee originated from the Caribbean (Taiho) Indians who called them “Manati.”  According to this source the name translates simply into “breast.”  I’m not sure what to say about this.  Hopefully it means something more expansive like “Hairy fish with breasts” and acknowledges that unique mammalian trait. Perhaps it actually means “potato” – who knows?

Now, so much for the Manatees. Since I can’t add anything original to this part of the discussion I’d like to switch habitats to a mangrove swamp adjacent to the clear blue waters of the gulf. At one corner of the grove the white sands of the beach at … (I can’t remember where!)… were occupied by a herd of tiny sand crabs.  Enjoying their opportunity to feed on exposed flats they busily scuttled into and out of their burrows.

Although I can’t say which species, I can say that they were Fiddler Crabs – probably of the genus Uca. I can also say that all of the individuals in this cluster were mostly females because they lacked the large fiddle claws. I certainly don’t say these things with ultimate authority but will say it none-the-less. One character of note is the figure of a “dancing cat man” on their carapace (back) which led me to the above conclusions. Can you see it?… sure you can… It’s right there like a Rorschach ink blot. It’s amazing what the hot tropical sun can do to the thoughts of a northern naturalist.

During high water the dancing crabs retreat into J-shaped burrows. They emerge at low tide to clean out their digs and feed. The larger sand balls clustered around the burrow entrances are the result of digging while the smaller balls are the result of feeding. They roll the grains about to scour off bits of algae and diatoms from the surface.

In and out, out and in, they reacted to every movement from above – unlike the manatees who reacted to nothing from above. I must admit that the crabs were far more entertaining than the manatees but acknowledge to each its own habit and habitat.

Behold the Dancing Cat Man!

March 9, 2014

Of Killer Sparrows and Husky Doves

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:34 pm

My previous posting being of a fishy nature, I’d like to briefly turn your attention to some feathered residents of Florida. I say briefly, because I’m not going to talk about the Pelicans and Ibises (Ibisii…Ibisisis or whatever you call multiple birds of the Ibis kind) until after we look at some more obscure things. This is not a birding blog. However (he says with a furled hypocritical brow) there were a number of “lesser” birds that captured my attention.

Northern migrants such as Yellow-rumped Warblers, Phoebes, and some Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere in the Gulf Coast area around Tampa. It was nice to see them a few months earlier in the year than I am accustomed. Somehow they looked different in that sub-tropical setting – perhaps because they were not yet engaged in the stressful job of courtship and young-rearing. I won’t go so far as to claim that they were on vacation but admit to the possibility that they were wearing sun-screen and therefore had an unfamiliar appearance. I look forward to seeing their pale, stress-filled little selves when they return to Michigan.

A Butterbutt at Homosassa Springs

Phoebe at Crystal River

The crows flying about the region looked, at first glance, to be Common Crows but upon calling they uncorked a very different sound. Rather than “Caw, caw” they uttered guttural hi-lo “Uh uh” calls (like a scornful parent catching a child reaching into the cookie jar).  These were Fish Crows.  Smaller but otherwise nearly identical to the Common sort, Fish Crows spend most of their time around wetland habitats. Like their larger cousins they cluster into large flocks and generally make their presence known wherever one traveled along the coast.

Boat-tailed Grackles were another fascinating member of the blackbird family found within the sound range of the ocean waves. These nearly crow-sized grackles put our Common Grackles to shame (an odd thing to say about an already shameful bird!). They are so called because of the tremendous keel-shaped tail found on the males. I have to say, as grand as that tail was, it was their startling coloration that impressed me the most.

At Hudson Beach the male grackles were pumping up for courtship and displaying to each other in grand fashion. Resplendent – and I mean to imply the full glory of that word- in glossy purples, blues, and blacks they faced off with bills pointing skyward (see above and here). A pair of males directly over my head, on a lamppost, took turns puffing up, vibrating their wings and blinking at each other (see video here). Each blink flashed a white membrane over the eye and conveyed part of an overall message saying something like “Oh yeah, I’m am da best boid and don’t you’se forget it!”

Mixed in with the Boat-tails at Hudson Beach, steroid-pumped Mourning Doves cooed out their mantra – or so I thought. These boids…er, birds turned out to be Eurasian Collared Doves. I won’t insult your intelligence (any more than I already have) by explaining why they are called “Collared” or “Doves.” The “Eurasian” part indicates that they are foreign imports which became established in the Bahamas and quickly spread into Florida and northwest into the plains states. Their husky calls can only be described as the type of call you’d expect from a Mourning Dove the size of a city Pigeon. It is both comforting and annoying at the same time.

Personally, the Loggerhead Shrikes provided one of the more pleasant surprises of my visit. Had I been a competent birder, I would have researched things beforehand and discovered that these birds are very common in the south. I would also have been forewarned about the Collared Doves etc… Of course, I did not and thus I was surprised by every bird that revealed itself to me (call it the Babe in the Woods syndrome or B.W.S.). When a Loggerhead Shrike boldly perched before me on a fencepost during my very first venture into the neighborhood, I was delighted. They also put in an appearance at Fort Desoto.

As members of the song bird clan they appear like under-sized Mockingbirds but are, in fact, Killer Sparrows of a very different nature. Shrikes are predators. Oddly enough, they are only partially specialized for their task. Like their predatory club-mates the hawks and owls they have stout hooked beaks. Upon closer examination it can be seen that they have a notched beak tip like that found on members of the Falcon clan. Unlike other members of the predatory union, they do not have sharp talons or robust legs. In other words they are sparrows with hawk heads.

The large head is quite obvious on these shrikes. The name Loggerhead literally means “blockhead.” They tackle small to medium sized prey such as grasshoppers, lizards, small snakes and even mice with a push-over attack and some deadly bites (on the neck of vertebrates). They then carry their vanquished prey to the nearest barb-wire fence or thorn bush and impale them on one of the handy spikes for safe keeping. Images of Vlad the Impaler come to mind. The thorn, taking the place of talons, holds the prey as it is dismantled by the Shrike’s sharp beak.

My only regret was not locating one of these impaled victims during my stay. I have seen a Deer mouse so impaled by a Northern Shrike back up in my neck of the woods, so I can’t be too picky. Overall the lesser birds of Florida, even the Glistening Grackles of Greatness and Killer Sparrows, put on a good show well worth the admission price.

March 2, 2014

Crevalle Jack and the Spanish Mackeral

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:13 pm

There is no easy way to start a Naturespeak series about my brief trip to Florida because there is too much to talk about. Putting a northern naturalist into a southern – near tropical -clime in mid-winter can create a state of over-stimulation. I suppose you could call it an overdose. In other words, I don’t know where to begin. I could start rattling off about manatees and pelicans or anoles or ibis flocks (does one say ibisii for plural on this one?). Or, how about the fiddler crabs, mangroves, alligators and cabbage palms – not to mention the Knickkernuts? See, you get my point.

So, I will begin at an arbitrary point with no rhyme or reason as to what is most or least impressive. Let’s start with a few fish just because we can and because they have some wonderful names. Florida is a place of fantastic place names such as Weeki Watchi and Chassahowitzka, which are rivers in the region north of Tampa. Being on the Gulf of Mexico, however, fish and fish names are also part of the mix. Let’s take the wonderfully named Crevalle Jacks.

The freshwater spring at Homosassa is best known for its herd of manatees. As exciting as it was to watch these huge potatoes sleep on the bottom, however, the swirling schools of fish demanded the most eye time. As viewed from the glass-enclosed observation pod their motions are mesmerizing. Watching the tornado tube column of swimming Jacks was enough to induce a hypnotic state. Because they are fast swimming marine fish they have a hard time staying still and so they do laps, as it were, around this huge natural hot tub all day long. The waters issue out of the earth at around 72 degrees F.

There are dozens of species of Jacks and the Crevalle represents a typical member of the family Carangidae.  Like all members of the tribe they have compressed silvery bodies (laterally compressed in fisheese), a series of boney scutes on the body just ahead of the tail, and deeply forked tails (lunate or crescent moon shaped). Their face is blunted and expressionless. The side fins, or pectorals if you prefer, are extremely long and taper down to a fine whisp and the matching top and bottom fins each terminate a saw-toothed row of finlets down to the base of the tail fin. A sleek racing fish if ever there was one.

The name Crevalle Jack apparently stems from a root word cavalla– the feminine form – of horse. I will not go into details because I don’t know or care. It can be said that the scientific name Caranx hippos has a very clear reference to a horse (hippos is Greek for horse). There is nothing horse-like about these fish, however. They do not graze and, in fact, are veracious predators. The origin of Jack is more nebulous. When I came upon the phrase that cavalla is another meaning of jack I prematurely decided to end this thread with the admission that “I don’t know Jack.”

I do know that Craville Jack would be a great name for a brand of rum or a horse-faced rum swiggler in some future pirate movie.

Another oddly named fish of Homosassa Spring are the Snooks. These large wall-eyelike fish hang out close to the observation glass where they display a neat racing stripe down the side. Elsewhere, large Florida Gars (lacking an unusual or even creative name) perform terrific manatee imitations by lying perfectly still on the bottom close to shore.

It was on a saunter down the fishing pier at Fort DeSoto, located in the mouth of Tampa Bay well south of Homosassa, that I (we, actually – my daughter and myself) encountered another fascinating ocean fish with yet another intriguing name. Several seasoned fishermen were plying their sport over the rail. One of them had a fish tucked into his bucket and I stopped to ask if I could take a look. His prize was a Spanish Mackeral. He simply referred to it as a Mackeral and dinner. I was unable to find out why it is considered especially Spanish but certainly understand why it is neither Dutch nor Norwegian.

Like the Carville Jacks, the Spanish mackerel is another one of those sleek oceanic speedsters. The identifying feature on this species is the galaxy of yellow spots on its flanks. The fisherman quickly offered to lay down his ruler to serve as a comparison and even thought I might want to hold it up as if I had captured the thing. Assuring him that my interest was strictly as a naturalist, I re-focused my camera on that neat little keel on the tail stem which is found on oceanic speedsters.

He pondered the feature as if he’d never seen it before and asked what it was called. Unfortunately I had no good answer other than “a neat keel-like thing.” Doubtless he was un-impressed with the Northern Naturalist. I later looked it up and found it to be called a “caudal keel”. This feature, also found on tuna and sharks, provides stability and support and is not found on any freshwater fish that I know of (note the qualifier in that statement).

Finally, I would like to mention the humble Scrawled Cowfish. Cow fish are well protected by a complete boney shell made up of fused hexagonal bone plates. Once seen, there is no doubt as to why a cow fish is called such (the scrawled part comes from the short lines decorating the body). They are equipped with two little forward facing horns over their eyes. Two additional horns face backwards next to their anal fin which would suggest an alternate name of horn butt just in case the old name runs out.

The beach near Bayonet Point was littered with their sun-dried carcasses where tourists and shorebirds were picking at their remains. Ruddy Turnstones sought access through chinks in the cow fish armor for bits of fish jerky clinging to the inside of the shell. Most of the fish were picked clean. One of them returned home with me and is banished to the back porch until it no longer smells of ocean (and other things).

I am not done with my Floridian rambles yet and will return to the subject next week. Meanwhile I’ll soak in this Michigan winter and return to my native roots. It is funny that in this discussion about Florida and unique names, I can only recall one other four-lettered name for snow and it too starts with the letter “s.”

February 22, 2014

Cowbirds Amongst the Cows

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:37 pm

There is little reason to celebrate Cowbirds, but the sight of thousands of ‘em does invoke some small sense of awe. Most cowbirds migrate south for the winter and you wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect to see any until winter has released its grip. On a recent trip down the road to Calder Dairy for some farm fresh cream and whiffs of bovine dung, I was amazed to see a huge flock of these blackbirds hanging about the place.

The pines adjacent to the parking lot were adorned with their shimmering black and brown bodies and the cow barn was equally packed with feathered life. It was bitter cold and very wintery. There was nary a touch of spring in the air yet the cowbirds were present and very much accounted for. The scene was rendered slightly magical by gentle falling snow and the bubbling sounds generated by a thousand little throats.

Being early February, it was possible that this was a very early migrant flock. I do know that the birds weren’t there back in January. An even mixture of Starlings peppered the flock, however, so it had the make-up of a generic off-season blackbird flock. Birds of a black feather do flock together during the cold months.

Technically these birds are called Brown-headed Cowbirds and even a cursory glance at a male bird proves this to be an appropriate name. Personally, and I have stated this before, I believe the brown heads result from all black birds following closely behind load-dumping cattle. Of course, this is not true but it provides a great memory trick for name recognition. Why anyone would need a memory trick to remember the name of Brown-headed Cowbirds is beyond me but then again so much of the world is beyond me. The original cows followed by these birds were Great Plains Bison and they gradually switched to domestic cattle when they replaced the wild bovines. The domestic hind ends also allowed the cowbirds to travel east and establish themselves on the Great Plains of Monroe County, Mich.

Female cowbirds are all brown – which means that they are either completely covered with cow dung or simply un-encumbered by the need for black feathers. No matter what, the females are possibly the most generic looking bird on the planet. A good way to identify a female Cowbird is the complete lack of any distinguishing features. Remember that cowbirds are nest parasites that need to sneak into and out of other bird nests in order to lay their eggs. You do not find nest parasites adorned with magnificent crimson crests or plumed tails.


There is always plenty of feed lying around a farm. Apart from feeding the livestock this also provides a horn of plenty for the wintering poop birds. The Calder Farm would be as close to paradise as an earthbound bird could expect would it not be for the presence of a wandering source of anarchy in the form of a black cat. I’m sure there are plenty of loose felines around the farm, but one of them caught my eye.

Normally I would rather throw my camera into a fresh pile of cow poo than use it to take a picture of a cat. I was temporarily fascinated by this feline. It sauntered by as if on a Sunday walk, even pausing to “clean itself” in that glorious cat manner. There were several drops of rich red blood frozen on its whiskers indicating the source of it latest meal. To say it looked guilty would be an understatement. The winter feedlot birds, including the plentitude of cowbirds, are a constant source of personal satisfaction.

February 15, 2014

Fowls in the Winter Stream: Part 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:48 pm

Saw Bills and Hoodies

The mergansers are the most unusual looking ducks swimming the River Raisin this season.  Although technically “ducks”, they are not defined by the typically flat bills of that group. Mergansers are fish eating birds and their beaks are elongated into perfect piscine grabbers. This adaptation goes so far as to provide them with teeth. Yes, I know, birds don’t – and can’t – have true teeth (or lips for that matter) but can have tooth-like projections along the edge of the beak. They are succinctly called “saw bills” by hunters.  Mergansers exhibit this trait to such perfection that their beaks look exactly like those of the spotted gar – a very toothy fish-eating fish. They are fish ducks with fish faces!

Two species of mergansers are operating in the open waters of the Raisin as well as an equivalent section on the Huron River in Flat Rock: Common and Hooded Mergansers. The smallest ones, the Hoodies, are among the flashiest of the tribe and of all waterfowl. Only the Woodies (Wood Ducks) out-do the Hoodies in this department. This is, of course, up for argument …but not here.

Both male and female birds are present and both are worthy of admiration. Female birds, typical of their sex, are subtly shaded and their heads are wonderfully topped with glorious tufts of “hair.” It is a mark of my age to compare them with Phyllis Diller but I realize this has no meaning to the Jimmy Fallon generation. Since I’ve promised myself to limit my allusions to such anachronistic things such as typewriters, dial phones, and eight track tapes I will let a frazzled paint brush serve as my un-dated metaphor.  Oddly enough, paintbrushes have been around for thousands of years and are extremely anachronistic yet are still used daily.


Male Hooded Mergansers are magnificent beings. Resplendent in pin-striped maroon, black and white body décor the guys have pliable crests. Adjustable according to mood or behavior, the crest – or hood – can be laid back in the manner of wind-swept wheat or fully expressed as a full white fan. When diving, the crest is lowered to create an aerodynamic shape for underwater work (they pursue small fish like feathered seals).

Above the water surface, the crest is fanned out. When alerted to danger, or used as a courtship tool, it is opened to its full extent. One might get the impression that these guys have really large heads whenever the crest is fully hooded, but is mostly composed of air. Indeed, it might be tempting for female readers to state that this is a natural male condition but by this statement I mean to say that the bird’s head is actually very small and that the feathers are very long.  They are pin-head fowl. When side-lit in the morning sun, this trait is clearly displayed.


Larger Common Mergansers are mixed in with the Hoodies. Commonly called Gooseanders , these birds are nearly twice the size of their Hooded cousins.  I’ve only seen the females this winter. These birds are mostly gray backed with crested rusty heads. When resting (or possibly meditating) they depress their crest tightly in line with their head and neck profile. When actively hunting, however, this crest is opened in wild glory.


The fishing behavior of these mergansers is delightful to watch. They swim against the current and regularly dip their faces beneath the surface for a peek. While so engaged they appear like snorkelers cruising for seashells. Upon spotting their potential victim they plunge into the drink and chase their finny prey (see below & here).

Although we are fixating upon their sleek above-water appearance, the mergansers are rendered ungainly by their long legs and huge webbed feet. Their legs are located far past the mid-line of their bodies – an arrangement perfect for darting underwater. Unfortunately they are unable to walk very far on land or ice due to this hobbling arrangement.

Given the above foot and life facts, it would be easy to suspect that mergansers are 100% tied to the liquid element but that would be wrong. These birds are tree nesters, believe it or not.  They nest in tree cavities. In another few months they will be heading to the northern forests to raise a new generation of sawbills in the trees.

February 10, 2014

Fowls in the Winter Stream

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:32 pm

About the only open water available these days is to be found in the flowing waters of the River Raisin where it slips past the rocky matrix in midtown and below the step dams located further upstream. This liquid resource acts as a magnet for waterfowl and a wide variety of frigid fowl are attracted to the river at these points. Although a huge number of Canada Geese and Mallards dominate this crowd, a surprising number of divers are in evidence. Diverse divers in da river are delightful (wow, wasn’t that incredibly clever).

Because these diverse divers are so de…fascinating, I’d like to spend a few blog posts on them. So, consider this a warning that unless some dazzling natural phenomenon interferes – such as a wandering Polar Bear in downtown Temperance – you will be seeing lots of duck pictures. Let this also serve as a warning that these are incredible looking creatures and, unlike a rather bland looking Polar Bear in a Snowstorm, their bold patterns and antics make for some de…fascinating images.

Red heads and Blue bills

Quite a few Redheads can be seen bucking the current and diving. They are well-named only if you consider the males and ignore the females (which is the case of virtually all birds with the exception of the Belted Kingfisher). The guys have bright round reddish heads atop a black breast and dark gray back while the gals are adorned in subtle shades of brown. The bright yellow eyes of the males give them a look of perpetual surprise – which is, come to think of it, the basic male look in all species.

The winter flock consists of an equal number of males and females, but they are not yet paired for the upcoming season. Like all winter ducks, staying warm is not an issue due to their thick layer of water-repellant down. For now, their only concern is to find food. They plunge head first into the current and seek aquatic plants and invertebrates off the bottom. In the case of the mid-town river the overall depth is only a foot or so and this trip is not a long one. The birds generally bob to the surface a few yards ahead of their original dive location and allow the current to deliver them back to the starting point for another dive.

Although the Red-heads have blue bills, their river partners the Bluebills have cornered the naming market in this area.  Technically they are called Scaups and even more technically they are classified as either Greater or Lesser Scaups.  Duck hunters, who are responsible for the Bluebill name, usually don’t differentiate between the two species but will use bill terminology to divide them. Greaters have “broad-bills” (and are so called) and Lessers have narrower bills (called just plain bluebills).

I’ve only seen a few male birds in the river and frankly I can’t easily tell which “bill” they represent. From a distance they are chunky black and white fowl with dark heads and butts, vermiculated backs (barred), and bright blue bills. Like the Red-heads, they also dive with gusto but specialize on snails and small clams – thus the actual meaning of scaup meaning mussel-eater. So, you see it is not a bad name, but doesn’t offer the flair of the nickname.

In general, the Greater Blue, or Broad-bills, have a rounded head with a greenish cast to it. The Lesser Blue-bills have an oval shaped head with a little crest or bump to mark the high point. Their head coloration tends toward the purplish side. Now, the lessers are a bit smaller than the greaters , but this is only apparent when the two are in a mixed group.

I will not get into this any deeper other than to say that a single bird I spotted at the Huron River in Flat Rock (see above and here) was definitely a Lesser Scaup based on the previously mentioned traits. Two bobbing sleepers in the Raisin at the foot of the step dam in Dundee, however, looked to be Greaters – even though they didn’t exactly look so great (see below) nor am I going to stake my reputation on it.

The Dundee Dam ducks were fun to watch because they were in resting mode. Head tucked over the back with the bill rammed deep into the contour feathers, they swam around the rapids with effortless impunity without changing their peaceful pose. One of them became alerted as it spotted me and took a prolonged gander (ducks can gander) in my direction but it soon figured out that I wasn’t about to jump into the water and was not a threat.

Before resuming the resting position this little duck stretched, opened its mouth, and stuck out its pink tongue. It appeared to be laughing at the cold and enjoying its winter life on the roiling river.  “It’s a duck’s life for me and I’m as happy as can be.”

February 1, 2014

An Audacious Arachnid

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:10 pm

On the really really cold days, he snuggles deep within his silken snuggie bag. He peeps out from the folds, like a dog watching traffic through parted window curtains, whenever the thermometer rises into the teens. On days soaring into the 20’s and 30’s he will come out completely and walk about the immediate framework of his shelter. So goes the winter life of my resident jumping spider living in my back porch (the very same un-heated, un-finished back porch featured in my last post).

All teary eyed Charlotte’s Web readers know that many spiders package their next generation as silk-encased eggs and die before the onset of winter. Some spiders do overwinter as adults, however, and my porch mate is a prime example of this tactic. To say that this hairy little dude is hibernating would be a miscarriage of the word. Technically cold-blooded arthropods don’t hibernate – they enter diapause. Because my little charge is a male, I suppose you could call his a state of menopause but that term has already been taken (why is it, by the way, women go through MENapause -shouldn’t it be FEM or WOMANapause?). At any rate, diapause implies a “pausing” of activity but, based on my observations, this is anything but the truth. They are quite active throughout the season.

The spider in question is a Phidippus audax, otherwise known as the Bold Jumping Spider. In case you are wondering, the Latin species name audax literally means “audacious”, or bold if you will. Apart from actually being bold, these spiders are identifiable by their iridescent green chelicera (jaws), hairy black bodies, and orange-spotted backs. The males, averaging 10mm in length, are smaller than the females and possess two tiny horns, or tufts, above their main eyes. Thus the reason I am calling my spider a guy. If he comes out on Super Bowl Sunday then I’ll be positive of this.

The chosen wintering spot for this bold little beast is a woven two-layered silk bag built within an open square of a metal cooking grid. This item functions a spacer for a small aluminum camp kettle during the summer, but the grid dimensions make it a perfect site for Phidippus in the fall and winter. Bold Jumping spiders use their audacious silk producing skills to construct chamber nests for various purposes. Females weave protective bags for eggs; growing individuals construct them for skin-shedding periods, and wintering adults construct them as Arctic sleeping bags. Several rows down and over from the wintering spot, a shed skin indicates that another – perhaps the same guy – used this square as a shedding chamber earlier in the fall (see below).

As I stated earlier, the only time I found this spider completely “paused” was during those hard freeze weeks when the temperatures crashed into the single digits and below. At any other time he was up and out and very alert. It became a challenge to photograph this fellow because he would spot me and retreat whenever I entered the room. I had to sneak upon him as carefully as if it were stalking a wild turkey. I frequently had to resort to my telephoto options!

Jumping spiders have excellent vision. Like most spiders they have four pairs of eyes. The central pair is huge and gives the critters a Jeep-like appearance. Apparently these main eyes are used for primary vision and the extra eyes (including a set on the back of the “head”) for light/dark indications. Thanks to painstaking research it has been determined that Jumpers see most of the world as a fuzzy out-of-focus green place. They do not have binocular vision. Instead, according to Takashi Nagata, of the Osaka City University, they have a four layered retina. The first layer creates a sharp image and the deeper layers register different intensities of UV and green light. The close items become blurry and thus allow for a comparative view for distance judging within each single eye.

Based on this analysis I often appeared as a scary blurry green object in the face of my saltatorial friend. After seeing what this would actually look like in his eyes (see here), I have resolved not to attempt to sneak up on my winter spider for the remainder of the season lest I drive him into a deep diapause from which he may never escape.

January 27, 2014

Bat in a Can Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:50 am

In short, a bat in a can can a.) revive itself from deep hibernation and b.) relocate to a better location on its own.  I received just such a canned bat last week and can now attest to the veracity of these two statements. A good friend called me last week after his attic water pipes froze and burst. The water flowed down through several levels in one of his rental units and melted a portion of the ceiling of the upstairs apartment. He didn’t call to ask me to fix it. I am a duct tape type of guy and he is a professional handyman.

Apparently the damage upset one the residents and he thought I might be interested. He was right. The resident in question was a bat (the apartment was un-occupied by humans at the time). It apparently came down into the room seeking a way to get the heck out of that unfriendly joint. Not knowing what to do with it, but not wanting to kill it, my friend coaxed the little beast into an old coffee can and put a loose plastic bag over the top to secure it. It was now in his unheated breezeway at home, he said, and was mine if I wanted it.  Of course, I did.

I didn’t actually connect with my friend, and his bat, until three days later (it’s a long story about a missed phone message etc. etc.) The canned creature was still alive when I stopped by to pick it up. A peek inside revealed a Big Brown Bat. It was torpid (sluggish from hibernation) and barely took notice of our probing fingers. We laughed over the real need to cover the top of the can – after all it wasn’t likely to go flying off in 10 degree weather…right?  So, I brought the frozen orphan home to my un-heated back porch and pondered its future.

My plan was to wait until the temperatures rose up into the 30’s and let him go. It is not unusual for Big Brown Bats to fly about in mid-winter seeking new shelters (especially when their old ones suffer from busting pipeitis). Unfortunately the prospect for the coming week was for a continuation of the arctic blast with no January thaw in sight.  That first night was to dip into the single digits and I worried about my little charge. For a second I thought about popping him into the frig but could not muster the ability to tell my wife, although I’m SURE she’d understand but… As it turned out the issue resolved itself without my sleeping out on the couch.

The bat was gone by the next morning. As the temperatures plummeted, he scrambled up the side of the can, pushed aside the bag cover and flittered away. Although I believe he secreted himself in one of the many niches and gaps between the house and the porch, he may have found exit to the outside world through numerous egress points (it is a very unfinished, as well as unheated, porch).  In other words, Big Browns are not helpless refrigerator magnets when in hibernation mode.

Cave dwelling bats need the stable 50-some degree environs found in caverns while B.B.B’s have adapted to shifting winter temps. Cave bats tend to cluster while Big Browns usually go it alone. They are very tolerant of cold and are one of the few bats that can afford to hibernate in drafty northern attics.

When entering hibernation mode they dramatically lower both body temperature and metabolism to reduce their energy requirements but oddly enough rarely stay in such a state for more than 3 or 4 days at a time. They wake themselves frequently in response to changing temperature and as a matter of habit. At least one study showed that these wide-awake periods last 5 hours on the average – which allows enough time to shift about or re-locate if necessary. One study even proved, and I am grossly summarizing here, that if a bat stays in a torpid state for too long it will get “stupid.” They need to wake up and restore their “synaptic synapses.”  I’m not sure there is a human parallel to draw here, so I won’t attempt it.

In retrospect it is amazing that my bat survived its multi-day sub-freezing can experience at all. The ideal hibernation temperature for such a creature ranges between 37 degrees – 68 degrees F. The air temperature has to be above freezing for this hibernation thing to work. When ambient temperatures dip below 32 degrees F the bat can raise its body temperature, wake up, and move or it can increase metabolism, stay in hibernation, and make up the difference. Either choice burns up fat stores but trumps the alternative which is freezing to death.

It’s a good thing that I took a few photos right away when I initially brought the Big Brown Bat inside. I was planning to try for a few better shots on the following morning. The bat, however, obviously had better plans. Once again I am humbled by what nature knows and I don’t.

January 21, 2014

Back ‘N Forth, Forth ‘N Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:36 pm

For a Red Squirrel there is no event of greater importance than that of protecting one’s stash.  Before I elaborate on that topic, please allow me a few lines to defend myself.

Yes, I am aware that I have either directly or indirectly referred to squirrels in many of my recent posts. Yes, I am aware that this might suggest to some that I am spending way too much time on the subject and that I must be lapsing into prolonged obsessive bouts of rocking and shouting out the names of nut bearing trees.  You needn’t worry. It is the naturalist’s prerogative to dwell upon a subject to near obsession – heck, Charles Darwin spent a lifetime investigating barnacles. You have to admit that squirrels are far more fascinating than barnacles. And, I must remind you, there are no barnacles in my yard. The plain truth of the matter is that the squirrels in my yard are so active that they simply beg attention.

Now, shall we continue? First, a summary. During the recent Polar Latex… er, Vortex…the Fox Squirrels enjoyed free reign of the yard. They boldly treated themselves to the Red Squirrel walnut cache under the shed.  After the Playtex…er,vortex …passed, the Red Squirrels emerged from hiding and were hopping mad at this breach of squirrel etiquette. The little red devils took immediate action to protect their stash.


Rather than launch a “Red Dawn” attack against their giant cousins, the Red Squirrels chose a much more subtle approach. They began to systematically relocate a portion of their stash to a new location. While one positioned itself as a lookout on the center Maple tree, the other acted as the nut courier. This top secret activity was conducted in the full light of day due to fact that the squirrel’s night vision goggles were destroyed by the intense cold of the Solar, I mean Polar…Never mind.

Over and over again the nut courier ran the route between the walnut cache and the new location which was somewhere over by the creek.  The tiny squirrel covered the distance, about a hundred feet or so, in record time – bee-lining from creek to maple, then maple to shed and back. A single walnut was carried each time.

Apart from the amusement of it all, I was also able to capture motion with multiple freeze frames. Red Squirrels bound when they are running and so frequently become air born with all fours off the ground (Eadweard Muybridge would be proud of my photo evidence of this). Those who are familiar with squirrel tracks know that the front foot impressions are behind the back foot impressions.  To those of you who didn’t know this, you now know this. At the end of a leap, the paired front feet make ground contact first and the critter’s momentum carries the hind feet forward where they strike the ground and launch the animal into another leap.

I can’t say how long my observed squirrel had been nut-couriering before I spotted it, but I can say that it performed at least ten more round trips before stopping. The lookout squirrel spotted me peering out the window and sounded the alarm. This ended the mission and the squirrels went “dark.” I went back into the house, began rocking back and forth, and started to continuously recite words that rhymed with Vortex.


January 10, 2014

Picture a Polar Vortex

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:29 am

First came the snow – lots of it. This was followed by blasts of fierce arctic wind and temperatures plunging into the negative double digit range. The weather folk called it a Polar Vortex and gave us a terrifying term to replace what would normally be called a “cold snap.” Partly as a victim of cabin fever and partly because of guilt for having it, I was strangely drawn to document some of this and prowled around the county seeking scenes of stark whiteness, crisp blueness, misty ice fogginess, and animal toughness. I was not disappointed on any front.

I here present some of my results in the form of an annotated photo essay. Let’s just call these “Cold Snaps” and chuckle softly to ourselves at the extreme cleverness of that title. O.K., at least allow me to chuckle softly at my delusional fever-driven cleverness incited by extreme conditions.

There is something visually beautiful about wild winter weather. The storm rolled in like a freight train and blanketed the county with a thick layer of snow. Just down the road, the winds blew so hard across the fields that even the roadside telephone poles had to submit to their ferocity. Never mind that the pole in the second shot had been leaning northward for years.


South of town, the waters of the quarry refused to freeze over when the arctic blast followed on the heels of the snow. Boiling like a frigid kettle of dry ice, the relatively warm waters generated an ice fog which coated everything with sparkling crystals. It was minus 8 degrees when I took this snap.

Although most of the river was frozen over, fast open stretches of the Raisin joined forces with the quarry waters and resisted the freeze. Ice fogs made for some stunning sunrise views when the shoreline Cottonwoods cast their shadows on the ghostly veil. Canada Geese dealt with the situation by bundling together, tucking their heads deep into their back feathers, and waiting out the stark cold nights.


A lone Bald Eagle surveyed the scene from the south side of the smoky river. She is one of several that make the rounds.  About the only thing that restricts the distribution of winter eagles is the presence of open water. As fishers and duck hunters they will congregate wherever their prey can be found and captured. Based on the dirty white head and eye stripe, she has seen 3 winters and is now engaged in her fourth (clothed in the so-called Basic III plumage of a 3 ½ year old).  Is she a she? Well, I really don’t know but am 50% sure. It’s a shame to call such a majestic bird an “it.”

The bright red butt of a House Finch added a dash of welcome color in the Arctic landscape. Puffed up against the elements, this bird was waiting its turn at a birdfeeder. They say that the intensity of the red on a male bird is a by-product of the pigments of the food they obtain just prior to their molt.  The dull colored females deliberately select the brightest males as their mates. From the looks of it, this House Finch will have to beat back the chicks with a stick (if, that it, he survives until Spring).

Across the road from the finches, a flock of Tree Sparrows gleaned seeds from the field plants lining the farm field. I believe the temperature at the time was around minus 2, but I doubt they noticed. Tree sparrows are Arctic visitors who nest in the Tundra regions of the high north. They over-winter in the balmy setting of the winter Midwest and make their living in the weedy fields and around the domestic bird feeders of the suburbs. Although sparrows as a group can be hard to identify, the dark breast spot, rusty crown and eye stripe, and bi-colored bill are definitive Tree sparrow traits.


I end my photo safari where I began with the squirrels of my back yard. My previous blog dwelled upon this subject and ended with some thoughts on the Red Squirrel. In short, you’ll recall that the Fox Squirrels have been braving the weather and eating all of the Red Squirrel’s carefully stored nuts. The Reds didn’t emerge from hiding until yesterday and – as predicted – they were ticked. One of them, pictured in the second shot, ran wildly from limb to limb creating mini-blizzards as it knocked piles of snow off the branches. It was visibly upset and I shudder to think what it will do if it catches the offending Fox Squirrel (looking rather guilty in the first shot).

The Polar Vortex may be over but the Squirrel Vortex is back.

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