Naturespeak

August 25, 2014

Second Nature: Waspy Moths

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:46 am
Virginia Creeper Borer Moth photo IMG_6146_zps69562d86.jpg
Second nature: natural observations made with little effort and requiring little explanation. While nature appreciation should be second nature in the true definition of the term, it can also consist of observations made within a short period time. Ideally nature study should not be constrained by time but the real world demands otherwise (assuming you are a participant in the real world). So, the challenge is to see what we can see given the time we have to see it. Sometimes literally seconds are all we get, but that often can be enough.
Because of a busy week (including the birth of a grand child) I was limited to short term ramblings in my back yard and thus the birth of this “second nature” segment. There will be more.
I came upon two wasp-mimic moths within a few minutes and a few feet of each other. They were hanging about on the vegetation bordering the yard. These creatures are unusual in several respects. As moths, they are double weirdoes. Most moths are creatures of darkness which fly and feed by night. Aided by the protection of camouflage they rest by day. Wasp mimics are daytime fliers who blatantly call attention to themselves. They display wasp features such as narrow, partially or wholly transparent wings, and spastic type behavior.

Virginia Creeper Borer Moth photo IMG_6155_zpsb3658479.jpg

Virginia Creeper Borer Moth photo IMG_6151_zpsf6d6dca4.jpg

The Virginia Creeper Clearwing (see above) is a middle-sized moth whose dark coloration gives it the appearance of a paper wasp. When approached it raised its abdomen, as if to present a “stinger,” and twitched both yellow tipped antennae as if to say “I, sir, am a wasp and you will not bother me or else…)”. The threat is implied subtly because most predators require little in order to be convinced that an easier meal is to be sought elsewhere. This façade quickly breaks down upon a closer look which reveals a very moth-like face, fully scaled set of forewings, and a harmless behind. As a larva the Clearwing bores into the roots of Virginia Creeper. Oddly enough the species name is Albuna fraxini. The species portion of that name (the second half) refers to Ash trees even though the thing apparently has no relationship with ash trees whatsoever.

Maple Callus Moth photo IMG_6163_zpse9b24e7f.jpg

Maple Callus Moth photo IMG_6159_zpseb71cb7b.jpg

A few feet over, I came upon a spritely little Maple Callus Borer (see above). In the same family as the Virginia Creeper Clearwing, this species sports completely clear fore and underwings ornamented with scaled stripes. Both the common and scientific names are appropriate in this case. It too is a youthful borer whose larvae feed upon the cambium layer of maple bark. The species name acerni means “of maple wood” and the common name details the larva’s propensity to burrow near tree wounds (and thus creating more calluses).
The most distinctive feature of the Maple Callus Borer is the scarlet tuft at the end of its slender abdomen. This spritely little day flier seems to hop about as if propelled by these imaginary rocket flames.

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 9, 2014

Fuzzy-headed Youth

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:13 pm
Immature Female Wood Duck photo IMG_5936_zpsb4f1eb27.jpg
Epidomax flycatchers, fall warblers, and immature birds are the bane of any birder’s existence. Lack of distinctive markings or “Jekyll and Hyde” seasonal plumage traits are enough to drive one into madness. Yet, because birders already live on the fringe of madness they accept, and even thrive upon, such challenges. Splitting feathers is both an occupational hazard and an essential part of the game. Since I avoid fall warblers like the plague and look the other way when any small greenish flycatcher shows up, I am left to deal with those immature birds.
Basically full grown in size, yet lacking full adult plumage, immature birds are like unfinished paintings of the birds they represent. True to the term they represent young birds not ready for prime time. Depending on the species these can range from hatching year birds which convert within a season (perching birds, woodpeckers, ducks, etc. ) to those taking several years to attain full plumage (eagles and gulls, for example). Often these young birds have the general adult look in terms of size and profile but are attired in a different cloth.

Immature Red-headed Woodpecker photo IMG_5996_zps84446079.jpg  Immature Turkey photo IMG_6016_zpsc13864cd.jpg

I have offered examples of young Pied-billed Grebes, Red-headed Woodpeckers (see above left) and Turkeys (see above right) in previous posts. Of these, the Pied-billed immature (see below) takes the cake in terms of taking on a radically different look from the parent (in other words the one that looks suspiciously more like the mailman than the husband).

Immature Pied-billed Grebe photo IMG_5494_zpsadd50335.jpg

This time, I’d like to present two additional immature examples just for the sake of discussion. The first is a well-named woodpecker and the second a very familiar duck. Let’s look at the duck first.
While at the Bay City State Park Waterfowl Festival I decided to walk one of the nature trails. Volunteers had previously set out various duck decoys in the water adjacent to the trial route as part of a duck I.D. activity that originated at the festival. There were numbered stations and numerous floating decoy examples which required identification. Closing in on one station I saw a few mallard decoys in the water and another, a less-than-convincing female Wood Duck, cunningly perched on the limb of a downed tree arching over them.
Soon, I noticed several other “woodies” scattered about on the tree trunk just above the level of the duckweed covered marsh. Again, all were in un-finished condition. The male birds especially lacked the brilliant hues and crest of adult Wood Ducks. The uppermost decoy took me aback when it bobbed its head and shifted pose. It turned out that she, and her fellow ducks, were real flesh and blood Wood Ducks after all. I could only see two of them clearly but there were at least six of them.

Immature Female Wood Duck photo IMG_5928_zps7cf90163.jpg  Immature Female Wood Duck photo IMG_5935_zps572dec64.jpg

From the time they leap from their nest hole, young Wood Ducks are constantly attended by their mother. The adult female sticks with her brood for at least 4 weeks – after which the bond slowly dissolves and the young are left to fend for themselves. They take about 6-8 weeks to fully fledge and hang together as a unit for an extended time. My living decoys represented birds fresh into their motherless phase of life and well on their way to independence.
The scattered universe of head speckles on the immature female (see above) were in the process of congealing into a clear white eye ring. Her breast speckles were starting to arrange themselves into the neat ranking of adulthood. Otherwise she looked very mature for her age (isn’t that always the case!).

Immature Male Wood Duck photo IMG_5931_zps5fc5e09c.jpg  Immature Male Wood Duck photo IMG_5932_zpsaa3df7d3.jpg

The male bird, on the other hand, was still in the dork stage (see above). His white chin straps were barely defined against the fuzzy pale brown head feathers. There was only a hint of a crest present and the flanks were still dark. This bird did have the beautiful red eyes and a wonderfully ornamented black, pink and white bill that would later define him as among the most beautiful of waterfowl.
My encounter with a woodpecker of unknown species was of a much shorter duration than the woodie encounter. Had I not snapped a few quick shots before the thing returned to obscurity in the nearby woods, I would have been left clueless (more than normal that is). Before me was a speckled medium-sized woodpecker with a brown head.

Immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photo IMG_6013_zpsc920df18.jpg

It took a while to figure out that this sleek little fellow was an immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. In retrospect (thanks to the miracle of photography), I could see that the distinctive white shoulder stripe – a defining mark for adult Sapsuckers – was present. The color of the head and upper shoulders was purple brown. Black was gradually replacing the brown areas from back to front like ink bleeding across wet paper. There was nary a trace of any red head markings on the head. It seems that this part of the plumage (males are identified by their red throats), along with the yellow belly, develops last and so this bird will remain a genderless little sapsucker for now.

Immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photo IMG_6014_zps17af2f38.jpg

By the time the migration season begins in late September, both the woodies and the sucker will be properly attired according to their sex and species. I will not recognize these fuzzy headed youth when they return in the spring resplendent with full coloration and the bloom of maturity.

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

July 25, 2014

Bringing Up Baby

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 4:57 pm
Pied-billed Grebe & Young photo Pied-billedGrebeandYoung_zps7ff108e5.jpg
As summer grows long in the tooth and the fresh green leaves of spring begin to display ragged edges, single brooded birds are in their final stages of parenting. For them, the proof of the season is a successful crop of young. There is little or no time for a “do over” at this point. There were three active families performing this role about the grounds at Dollar Lake over the past few weeks and their activities made things interesting. Not being a permanent resident of the place, my observations were separated by long periods of time – which means I was privy only to the middle of each story.
I am not sure, for instance, when the animated pair of Black-capped Chickadees excavated their nest cavity in the birch snag down at lake’s edge. I can only say that they did this at least two weeks before I found them. It takes around 13 days for the eggs to hatch and these birds were already feeding young. The hole was located about 7 feet up near the top of the broken trunk. Since the tree has been long dead, the punky wood made it easy for the “dees” to peck out their hole. It seems an impossible task for such a small billed bird, but a chickadee is a chickado when it comes to cavity creating.

Chickadee at Nest Hole photo ChickadeeatNestHole2_zps2119d037.jpg  Chickadee at Nest Hole 2 photo ChickadeeatNestHole1_zps6271a974.jpg

Both parents participated in the feeding and care of their chicks. I never saw the babies, hidden as they were deep within their lair, but can only imagine a full clutch (the average is 7) of hungry mouths were within. Both adult birds maintained a constant stream of caterpillars, moths, and other insects to fill those mouths – popping in for less than 20 seconds before emerging for another food hunt. The trips were spaced about 5 minutes apart and this was all day -every day over the four day period I was about the place.

Chickadee with Fecal Sac from Nest Hole photo ChickadeeatNestHolewithFecalSac_zps4817293c.jpg

The first successful picture I took of this activity revealed a parent, which had entered with a beak-full of food, exiting with a bag of poop. Better called a fecal sac, this white blob represents the excrement from one of the young. Urine and feces are contained within a white mucous bag, in the manner of a diaper, and the parents dutifully grab it and deposit someplace far from the nest. This, of course, keeps the nest clean and tidy. In the early stages each baby might put out a dozen of these per day which means a full nest of poopers would generate 60 or more of these offerings daily. Some species actually make a habit of eating this bag (what parents won’t do for their kids). I am not sure if Chickadees do this, but can say that at least on this occasion the bird flew off and dropped it.
Only passerines and woodpeckers do the fecal sac thing – others allow  their young  to let the poo fly over the edge of the nest. Fortunately (or should I say unfortunately) I did not witness the fecal sacking of the local pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers were already feeding full sized young by the time I crossed paths with them on my next northern visit.
Young red-heads, although matching their parents in size, lack the red head and stark black and white patterning of the adults. They are gray-headed, pale-billed, and sport a checkerboard pattern on the white portion of the wings. Traveling from tree to tree, the adults searched for insects as the young birds shadowed them. A symphony of mewing ensued whenever parent and young came together and just before the tidbit was deposited in the young woodpecker’s mouth.

Red-headed Woodpecker with young photo AdultRed-headedWoodpeckerwithYoung_zpsa90638f6.jpg   Immature Red-headed Woodpecker 2 photo ImmatureRed-headedWoodpecker1_zpscfb524f8.jpg

Again, not seeing the earlier stages, I would suspect that the young were approaching their final week of parenting (this takes about one month). Although they probably milked this pandering for another week before the adults gradually put an end to it.

Immature Red-headed Woodpecker photo ImmatureRed-headedWoodpecker2_zpsb2802a9a.jpg

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker photo AdultRed-headedWoodpecker_zpsa4132577.jpg

I saw both Red-headed parent birds in action, but only spotted one young at any given time (they were spread out through the canopy). In my final observation of this blog, that being of Pied billed Grebes, I only saw one young with one parent over the course of several weeks.
Earlier in the season, a breeding pair of Grebes constantly made their presence known through eerie vocalizations. Their nest, a floating pad of vegetation, was located somewhere among the cat-tails on the opposite side of the lake. Throughout the day, from early morning to sundown, the male repeatedly wailed with a cuckoo-like “kwop, kwop, kwop” call before his female finally told him to shut the heck up!

Pied-billed Grebe & Young 2 photo Pied-billedGrebeandYoung2_zps92064e65.jpg

A Pied-billed Grebe, accompanied by a single large chick, started showing up close to our dock about a month after the nesting commenced. These birds were silent and shy in the extreme. Because both sexes look alike, and both participate in feeding young, I couldn’t tell which parent was present at any given time. But I can say that only one was present whenever I saw them. The adult would dive under and retrieve water insects and tiny fish to offer to the eager grebe-let. The kid often scrambled about in confusion whenever the adult vanished and eventually took to diving in order to keep up.

Young Pied-billed Grebe photo ImmaturePied-billedGrebe_zpsbee0d798.jpg

Young grebes are startlingly different from their parents. Instead of the somber pale brown, and “pied” beak of the adult the chicks are marked with brown and cream striping which is especially prominent on the head and neck. Patches of rusty red, combined with a pink bill, throw in a bit of color lacking in the final version of the bird. This pattern, found also in coots and gallinules, likely acts like the disruptive painting used on WWI troop ships (we copied nature in this case). It obscures the bird’s outline and makes it harder for the enemy to get a bead on it.
All of this leads me to one stark fact about the apparent lack of success on the part of the Dollar Lake Grebes. A normal clutch would contain 5-7 eggs and a like number of young. Only one chick apparently survived this year. It was being well cared for and would probably make it to full Pied bill status by late summer, but I was left wondering about the fate of its nest mates.
Early one foggy late July morning, after watching the grebes do their thing, my attention was drawn down to a movement under the water lily pads at dockside. A huge snapping turtle poked his head out from under one of the pads, eyed me suspiciously, and then slid beneath the still surface. Having seen this well fed reptile I believe we can answer the mystery of the missing grebe chicks. Disruptive colors do not help when the enemy comes at you from the deep.

Snapping Turtle Peering Out form Under Water Lily photo SnappingturtlepeeringfromunderWaterlily_zps3baaea75.jpg

July 17, 2014

Le Petit Le Pew

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 7:44 pm
Baby Skunk photo IMG_5242_zps26b1dc08.jpg
First the facts. Striped Skunks have an average litter of 6 young. The maximum number in this department is around ten but some have enough nipples to accommodate up to 14 in case of a fertility crisis. Even though the little ones – skunklets we shall call them – can spray some musk at 8 days old they really don’t come into their own until approximately 32 days after birth. A skunklet begins the weaning process at that time, sports his first teeth (funny how these two events happen at the same time, eh?), and is able to “assume the position” and spray.
The critter is fully weaned within 46 days and able to follow mom and his siblings around on feeding expeditions. The whole black & white crew leaves the main den and they begin a life of wandering and temporary housing. Following dutifully behind their mother, a line of miniature skunks presents one of the more endearing sights in nature. Even the most ardent skunk hater has to soften upon viewing this Madeline-like habit (think broad- hatted Parisian school children following a nun).
By way of introduction, this brings me to a closer look at one such skunklet – a hands-on experience you could say. I will admit that what follows is a demonstration of what not to do with an animal of this kind. It is easy to get too panicky about this, but because a low percentage of skunks pose a rabies exposure risk it is sufficient to say that these animals should be seen and not touched. Because this latter statement goes for most wildlife, regardless of disease, it shouldn’t just apply to skunks. Skunks, of course, have a very good method of keeping you away and this problem usually resolves itself.
Unfortunately the little skunk in question somehow got separated from his litter mates and came under the care of a well-meaning friend. I took it as the opportunity it was (yes, mom, I was careful).
Based on the evidence presented earlier this orphan was probably close to that 46 day old mark. It was about the heft of a can of pop. It was (wisely) kept out on the enclosed porch and housed in an overturned box with a simple cutout doorway. Having been in custody for about a week, it was first fed with formula but quickly adjusted to a diet of insects, watermelon, meat scraps and whatever else was available. Mayflies, hatching out by the millions and abundantly available, were a favorite item of fare.

Baby Skunk photo IMG_5247_zps0f617188.jpg

It was difficult to get a good look at the critter because it continually waddled about like a wind-up toy – grunting like a tiny train engine as it probed every corner of the porch. I eventually, and against my better judgment, grabbed the thing and picked it up to examine it closer. Fortunately the little guy did not act on his objection to being restrained other than wiggling about. He did not attempt to bite nor did it spray. My friend mentioned that it did “spray a little” when it was surprised on the previous day, so I opted to put it back down (quickly).

Skunk in Hand photo IMG_5233_zpsb6003172.jpg

Taking a close gander at even a young skunk brings up a few details worth noting about these members of the weasel family. They are plantigrade animals which walk on the flats of their feet in the manner of bears and humans. The hind feet are fully soled (skunks got soul). Toe walkers, like dogs and cats have relatively small soles by comparison. Although still small at this stage, the claws on the front feet will eventually grow into formidable tools for digging grubs and tearing open garbage bags. Tiny eyes belay poor vision and a large rubbery nose is proof positive that smell plays a primary role inn this animal’s sensory array.

Baby Skunk photo IMG_5257_zps34f26a60.jpg

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of any skunk is the black and white patterning. It is a feature, in fact, which identifies individuals from each other. No two skunks have the same decor. The contrasting pattern serves as a clear nocturnal warning sign to all potential predators that a ticking musk bomb is afoot. Nearly all skunks have a white nose stripe and a white crown but vary considerably after that point. Some are stripeless while others have a single broad white back stripe. Our tiny skunk had a weak double stripe cascading down the sides and a white tipped tail.

Baby Skunk photo IMG_5266_zpsa5c1084f.jpg

I suppose I could now say that I picked up a live, fully scented skunk and survived the encounter without needing a tomato juice bath or enduring a series of shots. We don’t need to mention in the future that it was a defenseless little beast with no life experience.

Baby Skunk roaming about and under photo IMG_5249_zps5df7c783.jpg

July 9, 2014

A Beaverless Beaver Romp

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 1:06 pm
 photo IMG_5195_zps8af57ed1.jpg
Although I should have learned my lesson last year, I decided on an early morning visit to the Beaver Lodge at Conner’s Creek. The lodge is on the property of the Edison Boat Club and sits along the bank of the old canal that once serviced the power plant and feeds into the Detroit River. I’ve been to the place many times over the past few years to check up on my old castoral friends.
Beavers are nocturnal, and these urban beavers are especially so during the summer. They are often daytime active during the fall and this has proven the best – and so far, only – time to observe them under the light of the sun. My recent effort was to see if the pair had any new young and to see these little guys when they were still small. I thought it worth the time to come right at sun rise before they, or as they, retreated to the daytime comfort of their lodge. It didn’t work last year, and it didn’t work this year. It won’t work next year either, but I’ll probably try it again anyway. My effort did not go totally unrewarded, however.
Here, surrounded by the sounds of sirens, brick buildings, power lines, and the abandoned fields of an old cityscape, wildlife abounds. Sitting rock still on a bright morning (moving occasionally only to sip on my coffee) I was relatively undetectable by wild passersby.

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A Black-crowned Night Heron stopped in for some fishing (see above). Perching on a grapevine wrapped cable, this individual was topping off his night with a regular visit to one of his old haunts before roosting for the day. The appearance of a lanky Green Heron (see below), landing uncomfortably on one of the power lines, signaled the heron dayshift. This bird opted to forgo the canal and continued north – probably to the small city park located on the Detroit River.

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Barn and Tree Swallows flittered past, along with the ever-present and ever-noisy Red-winged Blackbirds. The semi-submerged telephone pole, which forms the roof of the beaver lodge at its dry end, served as a sun porch for several large map turtles. These ponderous reptiles slowly made their way up onto the log one by one. At one point two of them sat face to face as perfect mirror images of each other before a third broke up the symmetry with an off-center entrance.

 photo IMG_5210_zpse88d1400.jpg     photo IMG_5214_zps664b4d00.jpg

All of this was entertaining, but from my point of view, however, the most interesting visitors of the day crawled up on the bank literally at my feet. Starting with one very cautious little muskrat making its way into the white clover patch to my right, a total of five of the little beasts ended up munching on the greenery. The grass was a bit shaggy and it was tall enough to nearly cover their tiny dark outlines as they grazed.

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The litter issued from the beaver lodge and represented the latest offspring of a family of muskrats that has been sharing the beaver abode for quite a few years. The two creatures are famous for such cohabitation.

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The muskrats in this herd were quite young – probably about a month old based on their size and general stupidity. They “spotted” and smelled me several times. True to their rodent nature, they would sit upright in order to assess the large coffee-reeking form looming over them. Eyesight is not one of their better attributes but still they attempted to fix their beady eyes on their mystery observer. A few even bolted for the cover of the grapevines after perceiving danger, but still they returned. I guess the power of fresh cloverleaf overcomes fear. This food over flight response is why most little muskrats never make it to adult ‘rathood, by the way. Adult muskrats have the sense to disappear after they sense danger. All they have to do is survive one close call in this whack-a-muskrat world in order to get enough predator-sense to continue.

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At this stage of life, muskrats lack their full covering of shiny guard hairs. Instead they appear to be clothed in fuzzy pajamas. They are near-prefect miniatures of the adults, but their rounded heads betray their close ancestry to Meadow Voles (aka Meadow Mice). They are, in fact, also close cousins to the beaver themselves. So, in a way I was able to have a near-beaver experience on this trip. You have to admit, they are cute by any standard – even if they represented a second choice to this beaver watcher.

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July 1, 2014

Walking Thorns

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 3:06 pm
Two-marked Tree Hoppers in a Row photo IMG_5385_zpsae0076ce.jpg
When the small Redbud tree/bush in my backyard sprouted thorns, I was delighted. Redbuds, known for their lavender spring flowers and symmetrical heart-shaped leaves, are not known for their thorns at all. In fact, these plants never possess real thorns – their branches and leaves are as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Some individuals do support mobile thorns from time to time and my pitiful little example tree was just such an individual. This, of course, I should explain.
The “mobile thorns” in question are insects called treehoppers. Specifically they are called Two-marked Tree Hoppers. One look at the adult coloration should provide enough explanation for the name (they have not one, not four, but exactly two yellow spots on backs). These critters, if not having a Masters degree in camouflage do have a two year Associates in the Arts. They avoid predator detection by pretending to be thorns instead of the succulent little juice boxes that they are. This deception would probably be more effective without the two-spot decor calling out for attention, but I suspect this was due to some ancient tree-hopper union specification and that I should not judge. Their ploy is good enough to work most of the time whereas I can’t always say that about my attempt to be a normal human being.

wo-marked Tree Hopper photo IMG_5347_zps83c7ee09.jpg

This species has a tall flat projection coming off of their thorax that performs the role of a “picker”. The outline of the head and wing covers, neatly tapers along the lines of the base of this pseudo thoracic thorn. The legs, all six of ‘em, can be tucked out of sight so that the edge of the body armor can merge seamlessly with the branch.
Behavior has a big part in pulling this fakery off. Thorns don’t move. Even though these tree hoppers can walk and fly, they chose not to do much of either. Instead they perch motionless on the plant stems most of the time just like the real thing they are trying to imitate. They orient themselves on the steams so that the points are directed downward, or inward, and when perching in group they all orient in the same manner (lo to the little fake thorn that chooses to point the other way).
Two-marked Tree Hoppers in a Row photo IMG_5389_zps59003804.jpg
This inanimate act, like the camouflage itself, is not perfect. When approached, or touched, Two-marked Tree Hoppers will shimmy to the opposite side of the twig and will continue to do so until a.) the threat is gone or b.) they are eaten by a predator who has at least an Associates degree in camouflage detection (or fake thorn detection) or c). they attempt to fly away and are eaten by a predator with only a 3rd grade education.
Those females who survive, and are lucky enough to mate with a male thorn, lay their eggs just under the surface of the twig using a saw-like ovipositor (egg laying tube) to insert her cargo. The nymphs, looking like the cicada relatives that they are, emerge and seek out the tender leaf stems where they insert their needle-like mouths and drink of the plant’s sap. It takes about a month to achieve adulthood, so these non-thorny young’uns seek the underside of the leaf for protection. They have a small nubbin of a fake thorn but this is not enough to be considered a thorn except by the dumbest of predators. A few were tended by ants which were milking them for the honeydew secretions (see below).

Nymphal Two-marked Tree Hoppers photo IMG_5355_zps8a40e61c.jpg

It is interesting to note that the nymphs line up just like their adult counterparts, even though it is for a different reason. The nymphs line up along the mid-rib of the leaf like Kindergartners queuing up for lunch (except that they don’t argue amongst themselves as to who is the line leader or the caboose or who took cuts or…)
Newly emerged Adult Two-marked Tree Hopper photo IMG_5350_zps12b7e841.jpg
When the magic day comes, and the nymph is ready for adulthood, they shed their final skin and walk out into the world with a glorious fake thorn. At first they are pinkish white but this soon darkens into the purplish black of maturity.

Nymphal Skins Two-marked Tree Hoppers photo IMG_5375_zps699b3601.jpg

You’d think that all this plant sucking would harm the host Redbud (they also feed on Black Walnut, Shagbark Hickory, Willow, and numerous other trees) but most trees are man enough to take it. My little Redbud is taking its cargo of thorns like the little man it is. Well, actually it is not a little man but because the thorns on it are not real either, we can pretend.

June 23, 2014

Pecking Order

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 2:07 pm
Pileated Profile photo IMG_4985_zps79f4d2a4.jpg
I have often referred to my Dollar Lake property as the “Kingdom of the Woodpeckers” because of the incredible variety and number of these birds which frequent the place. I’d call it Peckerwood if the dictums of society allowed. Over the course of an average spring/summer weekend seven different species have been known to visit the yard. With the exception of the northern ranging Black-backed Woody, this represents the full complement of woodpeckers to be found in the state.
While I’ll admit that this is not a fact worthy of spraying a freshly gulped cup of coffee upon its revelation, I do think it worthy of minor mention in a minor blog such as this. Having established that I have been in the position of being a woodpecker connoisseur as of late, I will go on to say that there are layers of hammerhead appreciation. Yes, it is stupid to rank things but I have been known for saying stupid things and I must maintain my reputation.
My woodpecker ranking has nothing to do with inherent worthiness –it is, like wine, beer, and movie rankings, extremely subjective. Such lists often result in folks calling each other peckerwood due their obvious Neanderthal abilities in distinguishing the “crème de la crème” from the crap. I humbly believe you’ll agree on my top choices regardless of your relatively density.

Flicker photo IMG_4350_zps07618346.jpg  Red-bellied Woodpecker photo IMG_4803_zpsd0175907.jpg  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photo IMG_4595_zpsdb68abc9.jpg

The familiar and delightful little Downy Woodpecker is at the bottom of the list only because it is familiar, little, and not uppy. Flickers (see top photo above) come in second because they are familiar and because they are flickers. Red-bellied Woodpeckers (see middle photo above) are next on the list followed closely by, and often interchanging positions with, Hairy Woodpeckers. Neither is well-named but that is not their fault. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (see bottom photo above), in position 5, are a personal favorite because of their name alone. For sheer wow-ness, Red-headed Woodpeckers are second from the top as the best-named of all birds. None, however, can exceed the magnificent Pileated Woodpecker for overall wow-ness.
For considering the top two woodpeckers on my list, this season has been a good one.

Red-headed Woodpecker photo IMG_4808_zps4fc5d282.jpg

Either Red-heads are abundant or one individual bird is abundantly energetic because they (he) are (is) always around. Red-headed Woodpeckers are painted with broad strokes – their head is solidly red, their body white, and their wings starkly black and white. There is no barring or fancy pin-striping on this bird. When stationary upon the side of a tree they look rather fake.

Red-headed Woodpecker photo IMG_4810_zpscb65b4c0.jpg

Red-heads are noticeable for their coloration alone, but their behavior also gives them away. They tend to veer from the normal woodpecker habit of tree banging for insects in that they also engage in aerial pursuits for their prey – acting much like a flycatcher. One bird flew back and forth low over the dock apparently trying to scare up a dragonfly or two. If these birds are ever embarrassed by such non-conformist behavior it never shows (because they already have red cheeks and…never mind).

Pileated Woodpecker - Female photo IMG_4649_zps69bfd55e.jpg

Pileated Woodpeckers are in a league of their own primarily due to their size and ghostly tendencies. It’d seem that the two don’t go together, but one never knows when one of these giants will swoop into, or out of, view. It is easy enough to tell when Pileated Woodpeckers are in the neighborhood because of their distinctive tree-work. Excavating large square-edged pits, they can turn a tree into a good imitation of a towering skyscraper complete with multiple windows. They are not intimidated by the hard outer wood of a healthy tree in their pursuit of Carpenter Ants and wood-boring grubs deep within.

Pileated Woodpecekr - Male photo IMG_4972_zps56c380ca.jpg   Pileated Woodpecker - Male photo IMG_4981_zpsc49196e8.jpg

In my experience these birds will suddenly appear from nowhere. Occasionally they announce their presence with a horsey laugh (sounding very much like a Flicker call played on slow speed in front of a loud speaker) or you’ll hear some resonate hammering (sounding very much like a carpenter whacking away on sill beam), but for the most part they just drift in and do their stuff. Much of their time is spent on fallen trees and stumps.
Crow-sized, Pileated are about 15 inches in length and marked with the usual black and white attire of all woodpeckers. Males and females look alike except that the males have a red mustache and the females a black one (no comment on females with mustaches, now). The first photo in this series is that of a female while the rest are males. The species name refers to the prominent red crest found on both sexes – from the Latin pileatus or “wearing a felt cap.” You might be relieved (or is it re-leave-e-ated)? to know that this name can be correctly pronounced as either “pill-le-ated” or “pie-le-ated.” French-Canadians simply call them “Grand Pic” and avoid the pronunciation trouble altogether.

Pileated Woodpecker- Male photo IMG_4974_zps3c35771c.jpg

One of these magnificent woodpeckers came down to investigate our rotting stumps last week. He hopped from stump to stump before settling into spend a few minutes on one good ant-producing prospect. Once spotted, he paused, threw off a penetrating stare, and drifted into the woods. His unhurried manner of leaving suggested that she left of her own accord and not because of my presence. Yes indeed, this bird is top of the pecking order.

June 16, 2014

Because They’re Worth It

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 1:08 pm
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Piping Plovers are one of Michigan’s most endangered birds. They are so rare in the Great Lakes region, in fact, that most of them bear personal names. This is not necessarily a good thing, by the way (you’ll recall that the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth was called Martha and that Sue is a long-extinct -Rex!). Usually by the time people get involved with the fate of a species they are inclined to pin personal names on their subjects and mark them with colorful bands and tags. Therefore, like rock stars, these unfortunate critters are endowed with single names and lots of bling.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, one of the Piping Plovers I encountered at Tawas Point State Park earlier this week was probably named L’oreal. Although, because she wasn’t paired with Lancelot, I could be wrong. You see, it depends on your definition of yellow – I’ll explain this in a minute. The only thing that really matters is that this bird, and her mate, are Piping Plovers and that they are freely running around on the Lake Huron Dunes.
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Pipers are closely related to Killdeers. Like their larger cousins they have a ringed neck, dark forehead stripe, and only three toes. Unlike them, they are sparrow-sized, pale, and exceedingly rare. Against their chosen sandy background these diminutive plovers are nearly invisible. The two birds I encountered opted for high visibility in their effort to lure me away. Their earnest “peep-lo” calls punctuated the morning air and they skittered around the beach grass to catch my attention.

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Their efforts were not necessary in this case because their territory was clearly roped off and designated as Piping Plover habitat. I was outside the perimeter and the threat of federal law was enough to keep me there. Both birds settled down after a short while and one of them, the one I’m calling L’Oreal, snuck back onto her nest. A predator proof wire frame, with spacing just large enough to allow her passage, surrounded the site. Her nest, if you could call it that, was a mere scrape in the sand and is the reason this caged bird sings.

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Looking over my photos after the fact I was able to see the multiple leg bands on each individual. John Audubon could hardly have imagined what his simple thread-tied Phoebes hath wrought. Not only are these birds marked with a standard aluminum identification band, but are also marked with brightly colored location and brood bands. If they had external ears I’m sure these would be tagged as well. This system, along with the wire cage/perimeter system is consistent with Piping Plover programs across the country. In monitored populations, like that at Tawas, the chicks are banded soon after hatching.

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One bird had a high orange tag along with a black & green band on her left leg (see beginning photo and No. 3). The right leg had a high metal band with a pale ankle bracelet. The other bird (see above) had the high orange tag on its right leg along with a black and green band below the bend. The left leg was doubly banded with aluminum and green banding. The first bird matches the band sequence of L’Oreal. The pale ankle band, unfortunately, was a problematical faded yellow so I’ll have to add a caveat to my “expert” opinion. It could be dirty white.

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Let’s just suppose that I am right. This is not always a good thing to do, but let’s use this as an example of one piper’s life even if it is not the pictured fowl. L’Oreal – so called because “she’s worth it” (hats off to the team member that came up with that one!) – has been around for at least three years. For the past two she has nested at Tawas Point with Lancelot and successfully raised multiple chicks each year. She’s even been recorded overwintering in Georgia. That the other Piping Lover of the pair is definitely not Lancelot (who is a “right orange, green, orange and a left metal, yellow”) brings up some interesting possibilities which only his hairdresser knows for sure. Actually the state Piping Plover co-coordinator probably knows.
There are three main Piping Plover breeding locations in North America. The main population is found along the beaches of the Northeast and it appears to be the healthiest. Another group sets up shop in the northern Great Plains.
The Great Lakes population is the smallest by far. From a low of only 17 Michigan pairs in the late 1970’s, this number has slowly climbed over the years and today there are at least three times that number of known breeders. There were 45 chicks produced in 2012 and high hopes for more this season. Eight chicks were fledged at Tawas last year alone. Most of this success can be chalked up to the gallant efforts of conservationists and volunteers watching over them – you know those people who put names and tags on these birds.
Historically Piping Plovers were never common on Michigan’s beaches, or along any of the Great Lakes for that matter. Biologists estimate that only 600-800 pairs nested here in their heyday. Shoreline development certainly is to blame for the bird’s accelerated plunge over the brink within the last 100 years, but there was something else going on long before our arrival on the scene. Nature has a way of putting animals in their place and often we are not privy to that information. That probably means that even with a wildly successful preservation program Piping Plovers will always be rare. At least it is safe to say that they will always be special and all of them are worth the effort.

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