August 17, 2014

Honeydew List

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:25 pm
Black Ants tending Aphids photo IMG_6031_zpsccfc5006.jpg
I’m pretty sure that women don’t like the phrase “honey-do” list. It universally implies a litany of “bothersome” husband oriented tasks, assigned by an “overbearing” wife, nearly always involving tools, sweat, and “easy” weekend projects such as replacing a patio and building a new one. I am not here to argue the merits of this phrase, or lack-of same, because I am one of those husband type people looking at his 35th…er, 36th year of marriage and would like to celebrate our 37th. No, I am here to present another type of honey-do list which is performed exclusively by, and pretty much only for, females. There are no delicate issues to dance around on this one. I’m talking about aphid farming, ya’ll.
Many species of ant engage in livestock farming. The activity is performed exclusively by the female workers for the purpose of maintaining and harvesting Honey Dew for what is basically an all female colony (the male drones only enter the scene later). The gang of black ants living in my…excuse me, our (sorry honey) yard at Dollar Lake are so engaged in this pastoral pursuit. Their pasture consists of a small bushy Balm of Gilead tree about ten feet from their door and about 50 feet from ours.

Black Ant Colony photo IMG_6034_zpsaf503601.jpg

The cattle in this farm setting are aphids, aka plant lice. These sucking insects feed on the sugary plant sap. Because this fluid is low in essential Nitrogen, they must consume a whole lot of it in order to gain the essential amount of this chemical. This means that much of the sugar is excreted as waste – aka sweet pee or honey dew.
The sweet-loving ants harvest this crop in the manner of a dairy farmer milking his/her herd, although the details differ. Individuals will approach the hinder end of a fat little plant louse and tap it with their antennae. The aphid is thus prompted to produce a juicy bead of honey dew in response. This nectar the ant eagerly drinks and eventually transfers to other ants in the colony.
The ants are, for lack of a better name, Black Ants. I must resort to this generic description because I do not know the exact species. Of course I did not name the aphid species, but no one seems to care about that. Unfortunately, most folks don’t ask about ant types either. This is not a good thing, but I must not be hypocritical here. Except for Carpenter ants, Wood ants, and Auntie Em, my knowledge of ant species has remained fixed since a child. Back then there were only two ants in the world; black ants and red ants. One fought the other and that was that. Given that there are well over 12,000 species of ants in the world I suppose I could be forgiven for passing over this part of the discussion for the sake of the presenting the bigger picture.

Black Ants tending Aphids photo IMG_6030_zps0b51e9ae.jpg

This basic aphid/ant interaction certainly benefits the ants. At times it may seem like a one-sided interaction because a few of the aphids occasionally serve as meals on wheels. Just like human dairy farmers who regularly send some of their animals to slaughter, ant farmers eat a few of their aphid charges from time to time. The aphid colony, in spite of these occasional individual sacrifices, do ultimately benefit from this arrangement. Beyond performing the obvious waste disposal service (preventing fungus formation in certain cases) the ants serve as shepherds. They vigorously protect their precious aphids from wandering predators such as ladybug larvae and wasps. In other words, more aphids survive under antcare than without. Since both sides benefit, this type of plus-plus interaction is called mutualism (or symbiosis if you prefer).
I stand on the shoulders of others – or under their feet – when it comes to explaining the realities of aphid farming. I can claim little more than observing big insects surrounding clusters of tiny weak ones. Researchers have spent long hours investigating this phenomenon. One of the more fascinating aspects, involving the use of chemicals agents, was investigated by a team from Imperial College London, Royal Holloway University, and the University of Reading. Not only do some ants keep their charges in line by physically moving and herding aphids, but they also lay down chemicals with their feet that act as invisible fences. Aphids attempting to cross over these chemical fences were observed to significantly slow down as if they were treading on fly paper. There is also some evidence that other “semiochemicals” exuded by the ants prevent mature aphids from sprouting wings and flying away (which is how aphid colonies spread).
Such a complex interaction, taking place but a few yards from my door, is worthy of much more discussion but I must end it for now. You see I have a few honeyd….er, things that I must attend to.

Black Ants tending Aphids Detail photo IMG_6029_zps876822ff.jpg

August 3, 2014

Squirrels and ‘shrooms

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:57 pm
Grey Squirrel with Large Mushroom photo IMG_5748_zps56edb443.jpg
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).

Grey Squirrel Eating a Large Mushroom photo IMG_5638_zps5d0f392d.jpg  Gray Squirrel eating Large Mushroom photo IMG_5636_zpsb8716694.jpg

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.”

Russula Mushrooms at Dollar Lake photo IMG_5769_zps8e17d892.jpg  Russula Mushroom at Dollar Lake photo IMG_5770_zps892a6d74.jpg

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.

Grey Squirrel Dining on Large Mushroom photo IMG_5767_zps26b7ff34.jpg

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.

Grey Squirrel Dining on Large Mushroom photo IMG_5752_zps65254972.jpg

May 31, 2014

Red Squirrels and Rust

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:45 pm
 photo RedCedarAppleGallintheSpring3_zpsbfd41384.jpg
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.

 photo RedCedar-CedarAppleGallinNovember_zps980fe36d.jpg

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

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 photo RedCedarAppleGallintheSpring_zpsc91bb1bf.jpg

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.

May 21, 2014

Shadows of a Fossil Forest

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:59 pm
Field Horsetail at Dawn photo FieldHorstailatDollarLake1_zps80b80b0e.jpg
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.

Field Horsetail photo FieldHorsetailatDollarLake2_zps35a2b5dd.jpg

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.

Calamites Fossil photo CalamitesFossil_zps5d81ce88.jpg

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).

Horsetail Stems photo HorsetailStemDetail2_zps740390ad.jpg       Horsetail Stem Detail photo HorsetailStemDetail_zps8f7b173d.jpg

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.

Field Horsetail Cone - Detail photo HorsetailConeDetail1_zps14718b3f.jpg   Field Horsetail Cone - Detail photo 739fd295-2c91-4753-b48a-63805a8ded5f_zpsf0dec69c.jpg

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.”
Horsetail Spore photo HorsetailSporewithElaters_zps3bdf881b.jpg
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.

Field Horsetail at Dawn photo FieldHorstailatDollarLake1_zps80b80b0e.jpg

May 15, 2014

A Chipmunk for Baby

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:57 pm

Chipmunk Feast photo IMG_4207_zpsf91f5267.jpg

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.

Curious Dollar Lake Turtle photo IMG_4168_zps0bd1c33c.jpg  Pair of Dollar Lake Ring-neck Ducks photo IMG_4177_zps2aebbc85.jpg
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.

ollar Lake Pheobe photo IMG_4273_zpsb3505f8d.jpg
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).

Dollar Lake Black Phase Gray Squirrel photo IMG_4239_zps6f739a9d.jpg  Dollar Lake Red Squirrel photo IMG_4234_zps7980f0d8.jpg
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.

hipmunk Discovery photo IMG_4205_zps680cbd29.jpg

hipmunk Feast photo IMG_4209_zpsff398bd3.jpg
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.

Happy Chipmunk 1 photo HappyChipmunk_zpsb4be550d.jpg
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.

Happy Chipmunk 2 photo HappyChipmunk2_zps610a337e.jpg
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

Working the Night Shift

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:57 am

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4317_zps456581fe.jpg

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.

Devil Crayfish Chimney photo IMG_4341_zps9f5f2cc7.jpg
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.

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4320_zps90999d55.jpg  Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4323_zps8286f4ab.jpg
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.

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4327_zpsf2c896c2.jpg   Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4324_zps812dba73.jpg
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.

Burrowing Crayfish Excavating photo IMG_4321_zpsaeb8ebb2.jpg
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.

Devil Crayfish Chimney Showing New Work photo IMG_4339_zps865b36d7.jpg

April 25, 2014

Inside Out Zoo

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 am

Not a Clue! Muskrat as Beaver photo IMG_4108_zps8ed61d5d.jpg

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.

Nutria as Beaver photo IMG_4109_zps86bcac81.jpg

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.

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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.

Detroit Zoo Night Heron rookery photo IMG_4141_zps2686835f.jpg

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.

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Black-crowned Night Heron at Detroit Zoo photo IMG_4127_zps8a34dfa4.jpg

Black-crowned Night Heron at Detroit Zoo photo IMG_4119_zpsa003a275.jpg

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.

Danger Zone under Black-crowned Night Heron rookery at Detroit Zoo photo IMG_4131_zps85b73fdc.jpg

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.

Black-crowned Night Heron at Detroit Zoo photo IMG_4116_zps52ecb378.jpg

April 20, 2014

A Pelican Out of Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:36 am

White pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver_zps24f3cf3c.jpg

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.

White Pelican flock along the Rock River in mid-April photo WhitePelicansontheRockRiver_zpscd898de7.jpg

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.

White Pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver2_zpsf43eb220.jpg  White Pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver3_zps729287c9.jpg

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

Harrier on a High Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:55 am

Northern Harrier photo IMG_3716_zpsac3a3767.jpg

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.

Lesseer Yellowlegs photo IMG_3677_zps923f73e0.jpg  Perky Bonaparte's Gull photo IMG_3668_zps4f1f7292.jpg

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.

Blue-winged Teal photo IMG_3718_zps3d6f3b81.jpg

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….

Muskrat at Mouillee photo IMG_3727_zps4181ef1f.jpg

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.

Northern Harier in Flight photo IMG_3690_zps18e32c55.jpg

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.

Northern Harrier in Flight photo IMG_3686_zps18a42ea2.jpg

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.

Norhthern Harrier feeding photo IMG_3713_zpsdeec3ef0.jpg

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.

Northern Harrier Feeding photo IMG_3704_zpsf7f556a2.jpg

April 6, 2014

Walking Dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:15 pm

Opossum crossing the Road photo IMG_3387_zps00029943.jpg

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.

Opossum crossing the Road photo IMG_3401_zps2b8ede32.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_3427_zpsf0e0c94a.jpg

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.”

Oppossum playing Dead photo IMG_3414_zps3e1f25e3.jpg

Opossum with a Sneer photo IMG_3419_zpscacd1276.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_3421_zps558587ea.jpg

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.

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