November 30, 2014
November 23, 2014
One of the un-expected sights of late fall, framed within the background of burnt umber oak leaves and the lemon yellow Tamaracks of Northern Michigan, are baby snapping turtles. Such a thing really shouldn’t be unexpected, however. It is true that most baby snappers emerge in late summer and early fall, but a substantial number don’t surface until very late in the season. Some, in fact, overwinter inside their eggs and hatch the following spring.
I guess it’s all about counting backwards. It takes 11-12 weeks of incubation to produce a hatchling turtle. Snapping Turtles females do not attend to their eggs after they are laid so the incubating is performed by Ma Nature and the warmth of her soil. The peak time for adult snappers to lay their eggs is in June (at least in Southern Michigan), but individuals will lay their clutches throughout the summer. Those depositing their eggs in the latter part of August are responsible for the late autumn crop of young snappers. Those who opt to choose later dates (if a wild animal can be said to “opt”) will produce either frozen little turtles or spring babies.
On two consecutive late fall weekends up north, I encountered hatchling snappers. One was lingering in the shallows right at my dock on Dollar Lake and the other was traversing across a sandy hill, headed for the water, in Alpena. Hatchlings like this are distinctive due to their finely sculpted little shells – still soft and pliable at this stage – and their extremely long tails. No other native turtle comes close in the tail length department. I’m guessing this was evolution’s way of making up for the embarrassing lack of bottom shell on this species.
All hatchling turtles have a belly button – an umbilical scar indicating where the egg yolk was formally attached. This scar eventually disappears as the scutes of the plastron (lower shell) converge on the growing turtle. In other words, adult turtles do not have belly buttons but babies do – which could make for an interesting true/false question if you wish to trick someone or simply want to be an intolerable pain in the asterisk (just ask “do turtles have belly buttons?” A “No” or “Yes” answer would be equally wrong without explanation). My backyard turtlelet, as well as the sandhill individual, had fresh umbilical scars. They were both about the size of the egg from which they had recently escaped, which was about 1 inch in diameter. Most importantly they both still retained their egg tooth.
Take a good look at my pictures and you’ll notice the egg tooth as a whitish bump located just under their pig-like noses. It gleams like a date night pimple. This temporary structure is believed to assist the emerging turtle to cut open the leathery skin of the shell when hatching. Made of keratin (the same material that constitutes the tough body scales) the egg tooth drops off soon after the hatchling enters the big world.
Both of these little fellows are to be celebrated because they have successfully beat the odds so far. Sometimes nearly 90% of a yearly crop of snapper eggs are destroyed by raccoons, skunks, and other nest predators. Hatching is only one of the hurdles that a baby turtle has to clear on the way to adulthood. Since their parents can lay eggs as far as a mile from water, their young must undertake a dangerous overland trip to the nearest water. Crows, foxes, coyotes and all manner of beasts will eat tender young turtles. Even in the “safety” of the water large fish, herons, and even muskrats will feed on the turtles as long as they remain small and their shell soft. Once passing through this initial gauntlet, the rest of a snapper’s life is relatively free of trouble save for automobiles and turtle trappers. At this point they have the potential to turn the predation tables around, although they actually tend toward the herbivorous side of the scale.
My Dollar Lake snapperlet had reached the water on its own by the time I found it. I returned it to the water after subjecting the patient beast to a series of fashion shots. My Alpena hatchling was walking over a patch of open sand and was about as exposed as a turtle could be. The surrounding sand was littered with turtle shell pieces which had been scattered over the surface by nest robbing raccoons. I could not resist posing a fake hatching picture, shown below, before I was finished. Call it artistic license. The actual egg shell remains below the surface within the old nest.
Just to set your mind at ease, I did deliver the creature down a substantial hill to the river before leaving. I’ve no doubt that the next time we meet this belly-buttoned Snapper will be more than happy to bite the hand that once helped it. I would expect nothing less.
November 15, 2014
A few weeks ago I spotted a minor buck – a meager example of a four pointer (actually a three and a half pointer) – approach a small herd of does in a field south of West Branch, MI. The sun was setting and the fellow obviously had high hopes for a wild party night. The big bucks were elsewhere and he was performing a bit of Cervid Carpe Diem. Unfortunately, the gals were not about to allow him to seize their day, or night, for that matter. One by one they scooted away as he approached.
My intention here is not to document the exploits of a frustrated buck and risk embarrassing him back at the dork buck club. Rather, I’d like to focus on one aspect of his behavior called the Flehmen response. Our minor buck frequently stopped to smell the “Eau de Doe” in order to determine the reproductive status of the females surrounding him. He lifted his head up, curled his upper lip into what could be described as an open-mouthed sneer, and held that pose for extended period. He was processing the air-borne pheromones which charged the air with sexual energy.
It is not enough to just sniff the air through the nostrils to detect pheromones. The Flehman response allows for a direct shot of scent laden air to enter the vomeronasal organ (aka Jacobson’s Organ) located between the upper palette and the nasal opening. The nostril openings are closed during this action and the air stream enters via a pair of openings located on the roof of the mouth just behind the lips. Sensory endings in the Jacobson’s Organ are quick to read the phermonal message and relay the information to the buck’s brain. It conveys either a green light or a stop sign for the buck’s aspirations.
All manner of mammals, from cats to horses, perform the Flehman response. In fact, if you have a few minutes and are looking for a laugh, just Google the term “flehman” and you will get a flood of ridiculous smiling horse pictures. A flehmening buck lacks the upper row of front teeth found on horses, so their appearance is slightly less cheesy looking but presents an equaling interesting picture.
November 9, 2014
It was early morning on Dollar Lake and the dawn light highlighted the converging lines of a wake trail out in the icy water. I assumed it was the mark of a muskrat swimming across our end of the lake. The little rodent had been especially busy over the last few days and his antics provided some small entertainment as of late. All muskrats have the habit of raising their tail out of the water when they eat aquatic vegetation. Front paws occupied on the foodstuff, they assume a swayback posture that causes their tail to arch out of the water like a ladle handle. This Dollar Lake ‘rat habitually holds his tail at such a high angle that it appears to be the head of a miniature Lock Ness monster (see below).
Grabbing the binoculars (it was too cold to run out in my pajamas) I scoped the wake-causing creature through the window and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of the expected form of a muskrat, the unexpected lines of an Otter came into focus. This was only the second time I’ve seen this creature in the lake – the last time being a few years ago. Needless to say it was no longer too cold to run out in my pajamas, but I threw on a few layers of clothes anyway.
The Otter performed a periscope move to assess me when I arrived at the end of the dock. It apparently determined that I was harmless and opted to continue as if I weren’t present. Normally otters are fish-eaters but on this morning it was seeking an alternate form of seafood. The thing was crayfish hunting and obviously working a good spot. Over the course of twenty minutes I personally saw him nab at least eight crawdaddies and eat them with great gusto.
The sequence usually started with a contemplative full body float at the surface. They are long animals – ranging between 31”-51” in length -and appear very snakelike. The tail alone makes up nearly one half the body length. Plunging headfirst into the drink, the creature then dove down and rooted through the bottom debris. Rafts of bubbles marked the underwater search path as it sought the quarry.
If a catch was made, the otter bobbed to the surface and dispatched the prey with wide-mouthed bites. Occasionally rolling over on its back, sea otter style, it often handled the “cray” with nimble front paws. The sun highlighted the pink palette and substantial teeth of the predator as it gnawed away on the mudbug.
Sometimes, instead of immediately eating the crayfish, it swam with it to the Northwest corner of the lake. There it dove under at a spot near the shore where it probably entered a bank burrow and finished the meal there. Oddly enough this was the same location where the muskrat also dives under and I wonder if the two were sharing this entrance to a common burrow. Muskrats and otter do not traditionally get along (as in – otters can eat muskrats), however, so I’m not sure what was going on there. The muskrat was active at the same time the otter was out so perhaps the two have come to terms somehow (aided by the fact that the otter was satiated by a more than ample crayfish supply).
Otters are not un-common in Michigan but they are widely scattered and rarely seen. One study in Northern Michigan showed their distribution to be about one per every 4.8 miles of river shore. Every sighting, therefore, is special. One doesn’t get the chance to look down the mouth of a Michigan Otter very often. Unfortunately I was somewhat down in the mouth because we were closing down the cabin for the year and this was our last day for the year. I can’t tell you how long the creature worked the lake or if there was any drama between the muskrat and the otter. The morning sun was still breaking over the trees and the otter was taking a break in its burrow by the time we left. We otter be back by next March to continue the story.
October 31, 2014
There may be a masked killer lurking in your bedroom or in the deep recesses of the closet under the stairs. He is an ashen ghost who moves slowly and deliberately yet will strike with frightening speed at the appointed time. He is the dust bunny you will never see until it is too late. Don’t look under the bed or shine a light into the closet unless you are prepared. Bwa ha ha ha! BWA HA HA HA! BWA H (cough, cough, hack…). Darn I hate these dusty places.
The Masked Hunter is a real creature. It lurks in the very places mentioned in my cheesy Halloween introduction but is not a threat to humankind. Rather, he is a beneficial beast that has taken up life in our abodes and feeds on un-wanted insects – some of which can be a threat to our existence. A member of the Assassin Bug clan, they are equipped with hollow stiletto mouths with which they drain the life juices out of their prey. Although ants, beetles and other unwelcome guests form the bulk of their fare, bedbugs are targeted when present (note the words “when present” – the presence of masked hunters doesn’t mean bedbugs are about).
A full grown Masked Hunter does not wear a mask. As an adult it is a stealthy predator that needs no disguise. As a nymph, however, it becomes a living dust bunny and covers itself with a mask of dirt and fibers. Long sticky hairs cover the body and accumulate the necessary material. The overall look is so well done that it is difficult to pick out individual features other than the six legs. The eyes are mostly covered and the antennae bent so as to look almost twig-like.
To enhance his appearance, the masked Hunter employs some method acting. Dust bunnies do not move so this dust clone moves very little. When prompted with a touch or a slight breeze it will advance with stilted stop-motion steps but only goes a short distance before freezing once again. The act is of Oscar quality. As a Halloween costume it is much better than any of the “Breaking Bad” or “Olaf” costumes that appear at your door, although a child acting like a masked hunter would take forever to get around the neighborhood and dearly try the patience of the attending parent.
The Hunter pictured here, although photographed within the setting of my house, did not come from it. It was found within the coat room of a very new and non-dusty church! Against the dark short carpet the thing stood out like a sore thumb. I will release it again so that it can continue to do good, but haven’t decided whether to bring it back to the church or let it go here. The more I think of it, I’lI put it into the bag of the child that comes to my door dressed as a bedbug….bwa ha ha ha HA HA HA H (cough, wheeze, hack).
October 25, 2014
Box elder bugs are year-round insects but we don’t usually notice them until the “witching season” in late autumn. At that time they gather around the cracks and crevices that will eventually become their winter home. Until freezing temperatures force them to descend into the deepest recesses of their hibernaculum (that’s “scientific” for winter hibernation chamber) they pretty much spend all their time sun-worshiping. The low morning sun is especially relished.
I have a cedar shingled house offering plenty of potential hibernacula. The entire east side is bathed by the rays of the morning sun on early bright fall days. You could call it a Box Elder Bug palace; although I doubt that particular phrase would enter into the realtor’s description should we opt to sell the place as we enter the autumn of our lives.
The Box Elder B’s greet the sun with a collective sigh of relief – clustering into small social clubs where they talk about how much life sucks. As sucking insects this topic is a positive one. In the spring they will emerge to feed on seeds and low plants until the local female Box Elders trees (or occasional maple) come to flower. There they will suck Elder sap and raise new little suckers.
The only question remaining for the next year’s elder Box Elder Bug population is what to call the new Box Elder Bugs they create. Should they be called Box Youngling Bugs or perhaps Box Baby Bugs in order to separate them from the older and wiser winterers? Fortunately this never poses a real problem because the elder Box Elder Bugs die before they can gather into focus groups.
We superior humans, of course, know that this is a stupid question because the plant is called Box Elder not because it is older than the rest but because, um, well … because of… Oh, yes because the wood resembles that of the Boxwood tree and the leaves that of the Elder tree. And we ALL know that Elder trees are guarded by witches and, according to an old European chant (“And I myself an eldern tree”) some are actually witches themselves!
Silly insects, they believed that they were feeding on witches’ blood all summer but were actually taking in fake witches’ blood. As half-wing insects (true bugs are hemipterans), it could devastate the other half of their lives should we let them in on this devastating secret. I for one do not want to listen to the collective sobs of a million Box Elder Bugs through my wall all winter long.
October 18, 2014
The natural world is ripe with imitation. It is the ultimate form of flattery (and self-preservation) to look like something else – especially if that something else is inedible. Take a dry leaf, for example. Only a low life decomposer would even consider a dead leaf as food, so many insects wear a dead leaf costume in order to convince hungry predators to overlook them. Moths are especially prone to this disguise tactic because the structure of their wings lends itself well to such fakery.
On a day when brown windblown leaves were tousling about, I spotted this Geometer Moth clinging to the rough bark of a Red Maple. The adult form of twig-imitating “inchworms,” geometer moths extend this youthful deception to become grown up leaves.
It might seem that such a disguise fails when it is exposed against the dark background of a tree trunk. After all, I spotted the thing from a dozen feet away. But, then again, it had such a good leaf look that I doubt that even a savvy predator would discern this from the millions of other leaves blowing about. This individual had the additional effects of age to enhance its outfit. Multiple tears – not part of the original wing design – gave it the truly authentic worn look of a crackled October leaf.
Because the tears are not genetic parts of the camouflage look, this moth will not pass on these traits to the next generation. Probably the result of a short life of heavy use, they will likely insure that this critter will survive its full short life before succumbing to a natural death from the chills of autumn.
October 13, 2014
Much of the life of Funnel Weaver Spiders involves a waiting game. Instead of pursuing prey like wolf spiders or animated jumping spiders, they spin flat sheet webs and wait for insect prey to walk across the surface. The killer waits inside a special side chamber (the “funnel”) until signaled to emerge by the vibrations generated from tiny feet crossing the web. A quick dash, followed by a fatal bite secures the prey and renders it a meal. When the mating urge is felt, the males abandon their web and go courting – fully realizing in their instinctive little brains that this risky behavior is necessary for the propagation of the species. Ah, the things they will do for love.
Female Funnel Weaver spiders wait within their liars until prospective mates come a knocking. For a male of the species this is a tricky prospect because knocking at any funnel weaver’s door is tantamount to inviting yourself for dinner – as in YOU being the dinner. When that doorway frames a hungry female, about a third larger than you, the danger is even greater. Although no self-respecting spider would admit it, the empty carcasses of dead insects lining the path certainly don’t inspire confidence. So, before he can get down to business, the suitor must convince the female that he is not a meal but a mate.
He will dance about and wave his legs to signal manly intentions. Pedipalps – specialized male appendages to either side of the jaws – are moved to and fro like an airline worker guiding a landed jet to its gate. All this is intended to convince the potential Mrs. that he is a virile eight-legger and not a six-legged juice box. Once convinced, the female will allow her suitor to advance and begin his masculine task. To say the least spider foreplay is a creepy affair, but that which follows is fascinatingly boring.
I witnessed this drama taking place in my yard last week. A sizable female weaver (see first photo), who had maintained a funnel bridging the gap between an old barrel hoop and the siding of the house, received a late afternoon visitor. He ably subdued her into taking a passive legs-up pose but never let his guard down during the process which followed. While still slowly waving one of his pedipalps in the air he carefully engaged the other on her tender undersides.
The tips of the pedipalps are saucerlike with the inner surface of each sporting a black coiled organ called an embolus. They are maneuvered down to the female’s genital opening and the tip of the embolus inserted within. Then, the male pumps his semen into the female .To carry the airline analogy one step further, this process is more like fueling a jet and just about as exciting. One big difference here is that the process takes many hours (six hours or more in some cases!). And that, my dear readers, is not a spectator sport. I left to watch some corn growing across the road.
The male made his escape by nightfall (at least he was gone by the time I checked back much later). He will live to inseminate several more females before dying with a smile on his eight-eyed face. Females will also mate with several more males if they are given the opportunity. In the case of my yard spider, she retreated to the space under the siding and never appeared again. This could have been her third suitor for all I know. Unseen under the shingle, she would have laid several lens-shaped egg sacs containing 50-200 eggs which will pass the winter.
When the young emerge in the spring they will likely scamper over the desiccated remains of their mother who died peacefully in place after laying her eggs. There is much creepiness in the spider world but then again it is all about perspective isn’t it?
October 4, 2014
It was only after the mink disappeared under a tree root that I re-directed my attention to a trio of Mallards across the river. They were clear enough to see, but in the world of nature study Mallards are not normally on the top of the list. This is not a good thing, but it is a thing because familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least complacency. These fine fowl were standing unsurely on a submerged branch as the current of the swollen Huron River rushed past them.
Backlit by a strong morning sun, they were on high alert with nervous heads bobbing atop extended necks. Actual wild mallards, not frumpy farm fowl, they were ready to bolt at the sequential exposure to a mink and man! Fortunately they hung around for a frantic minute before exploding into flight.
These male birds were perfect examples of the teenage type (due to plumage and not erratic unexplainable behavior). Juvenile birds offer some interesting plumage combinations as they transform into adulthood via a time-honored schedule. It is not a random process. Because it occurs relatively quickly, however, it is a minute phase of the natural year that is often overlooked.
Earlier in the month the ducks bore the brown mottled plumage of youth and were now in the late September mode of wardrobe change. At this stage the mottled breast feathers are mostly replaced by the deep russet tones of drakehood and most of the back and shoulder feathers have already converted over to light gray. It will take a while before they attain the distinctive black curly feathers on their fully mature bottoms, but they already exhibit a manly looking yellow bill.
The green portion of the head, that part which gives the species the common name of “Greenhead,” is but a simple crescent lying between eye and beak as of early fall. As the season progresses, this patch migrates from front to back until the entire head becomes iridescent green by winter. You will see some Mallards which have an overall spotty green head (“scruffy” by some definitions) and these would be the adult drakes recovering from their late summer eclipse plumage. Adult Mallards undergo two molts per year.
The subject of molting is a big one in the bird world. For these juvenile males, the act of changing feathers involves a heavy physiological workload. Being mostly protein, feathers make up around 1/3 of the entire body protein of the animal. Therefore, feather-growing requires a substantial intake of protein rich foods. Add to this burden the need to put on an extra load of fat for migration and you have birds that can afford little time for leisure.