September 15, 2014
Second nature: something that should be natural and easy to do –such as a short piece on a small subject based upon a few moments of nature observation. Get it? Second, as in part of a minute, and…never mind.
You may recall my blog from a couple of installments ago in which I told the riveting details of my encounter with a Leafy Spurge Sphinx (a new species in Michigan). O.K., so it wasn’t riveting – I merely picked the thing up as it was crossing a Northern Michigan road. The only riveting part was when a truck nearly ran it over before I could nab it. At the time of writing I mentioned that I would await the coming pupal stage of this beast as the next point of interest in this story. Well, he has finally “taken the plunge” and I am duty-bound to bring you up to date.
Safe within the confines of its high-tech enclosure (a coffee cup partially filled with sandy soil) the caterpillar shed his colorful skin and converted to an intricately patterned pupa. It tunneled down about an inch and created a chamber whose walls were held together with a loose mat of silk before performing the transformation.
The pupa retains the caterpillar’s horn and spiracles (breathing holes), but otherwise displays – via outlines on the exterior of the casing – the new look it will have as a sleek adult. Large compound eyes sit opposite on a well-defined head. A long tongue has replaced the chewing mouthparts. Destined for sipping nectar from tubular flowers, the tongue appears down the center along with the two linear antennae. Both are framed between the leading edges of the folded mini-wings. The sixteen legs of youth have been reduced to six and they are neatly aligned with the tongue and antennae.
Inside this simple casing a remarkable transformation is occurring. The muscles of old are dissolved and re-created to serve powerful wings, tongue, and legs. Evidence that the abdominal muscles are already functioning, the creature wiggles freely when handled. This, of course, makes for riveting footage (see here) but we’ll have to wait until next spring before the final exciting chapter in this metamorphosis takes place. This thing is more moth now than caterpillar – straight and peaceful (unlike Darth Vader).
On the subject of non-caterpillars, Dogwood Sawfly larvae (see above) are chewing away at the refugee Gray Dogwood sapling next to my house. Although they look very caterpillar-like they are very not (odd wording, I know, but I’m sticking with it). Sawflies are closely related to bees and wasps and the adult stages bear this out. The larvae are plant eaters that live and eat like caterpillars and therefore have adapted like traits and appearances. There are a few distinctions that separate them from moth/butterfly (let’s call them lepidopteron) larvae, however.
Sawfly larvae have a solid head capsule with two prominent eyes, whereas lepidopterans typically have three sets of tiny eyes and a divided head capsule. The leps have only four sets of fleshy legs in the center of their body and the sawflies have six or more pair. Even though some caterpillars are colonial, Sawflies are always colony feeders so you rarely find just one.
Members of the family have the unusual habit of raising their hind ends when disturbed – as if to say “my butt to you.” The Dogwood sawflies take this to such an extreme that they actually curl up like miniature cinnamon rolls. Younger stages of this species, such as these examples, are covered with a waxy down.
These little fellows will lose that downiness and take on a smooth stark black and yellow skin as they approach their last stage of larvalhood. Like the sphinx moth they will burrow under the ground and overwinter as a pupa. Both the Spurge Sphinx and Dogwood Saw Fly will spend the winter as un-caterpillars: one as a “never was” and the other as a “used-to-be”.
September 8, 2014
Second nature: something that should be natural and easy to do –such as a short piece on a small subject based upon a few moments of nature observation. Get it? Second, as in part of a minute, and…never mind.
A large golden fly landed on my arm as I was standing on my Dollar Lake dock. The thing was so bizarre looking, and appeared so suddenly, that I briefly thought it to be some sort of twisted “bluebird of happiness.” I would not have expected a long-legged, hunchbacked, fuzzy yellow insect to be a bringer of fortune but at my stage of life I am open to suggestion. Unfortunately it took off and briefly landed on the dock before vanishing into thin air. I actually felt slightly sadder after the encounter, and so conclude it was merely a “fly that reminds people how average looking they are.”
This was no average looking fly, however. Called a Hunch-backed Bee Fly, this critter is a member of a group of so-called flower flies. The adults feed on nectar and the maggots steal food from solitary wasps. Hunch-backs specialize in coneflowers and daisies. I guess that my cone-shaped head must have tricked it into approaching me. Apart from the legginess and humpiness of this individual, the peculiar antennae are worth noting because of their un-flylike length and fuzziness. In some texts they are sometimes referred to as scalehorn flies for this reason.
Scientifically this fly is labeled Lepidophora lutea; meaning “yellow scale bearer” or something like that. This is a good name. Even the wings have a light coating of buttery-hued scales. It is a much better name than “the stupid fly that mistakes people for flowers.”
Back on the shore I came upon a robust fly of a very different sort (see above). It was a Robber Fly in the process of draining the life out of a tiny moth. Unlike the humble Bee Flies, Robbers are aggressive predators. They tackle flying insect prey with stout legs and then inject them, via a blade-like proboscis, with toxic spit. This fluid paralyses the victim and liquefies the organs so that the fly can leisurely suck out the mix like a McDonald’s shake. The flavor of the hour in this case was a diminutive moth called a Small White Grass Veneer Moth (see below).
All of Robber flies share a generally hairy look and often possess a “Snuffy Smith” mustache of sorts bordering the lower face. Their maggots are predatory (in other words “not cute”). Like all flies, the adults have only one pair of wings. The second pair are reduced to tiny clubs called halteres (look closely under the wing in the first picture below). These organs rotate about when the creature is in flight and act as gyroscopes.
There are thousand of species of Robber flies in the world. Based on cursory investigation I’d say this particular life-stealer was a female member of the genus Machimus. The Greek origins of the genus name refer to “war-like” or “soldier” depending on how it’s used. There was a city in Greek legend called Machimus which was populated by huge warrior people and Machimus was one of the 50 dogs that attacked and ate the hunter Actaeon after he was turned into a stag. You see he accidently came upon a bathing goddess and saw here naked and…forget it. Greek stories are far too complicated to explain here, so let’s leave this discussion where it lay.
August 31, 2014
Even from behind the steering wheel I could see that the caterpillar crossing the road ahead of me was a whopper. We were on 131 heading north through Mancelona, MI and the pre-labor day traffic was fairly light. I hastily pulled off to the shoulder to get out and snatch the critter from the blacktop but had to wait out an on-coming pack of cars before I could make my grab. Fortunately most of them veered into the left lane as they passed me and therefore missed the caterpillar. The last one, a camper unit, barreled past within the lane and the resulting gush of wind spun the ‘piller around and tumbled it head over heels down the road. I was there to pick it up after the dust cleared and was glad to see that the object of my attention was unhurt.
Although the creature spit up a bunch of defensive green goo into my hand to reward me, my actions were well worth the effort. The glorious three inch creature within my palm was a fantastic looking – yet unknown – type of sphinx larva. I was thinking Galium (Bedstraw) Sphinx but would have said so only if pressed (my wife didn’t press, so my ignorance remained safely concealed). Full identification had to wait until I reached an internet connection. Years ago I would have consulted my tote-along trove of field guides, but modern times require modern means. As it turns out, only this modern means could have provided the answer. Not only was this an imported species but was also a brand new addition to the state list. It was a Spurge Hawk Moth (aka Spurge Sphinx).
A native of Europe and northern Asia, this insect was deliberately introduced to North America to control a pesky plant called the Leafy Spurge. The aggressive Spurge was accidently introduced back in the 1800’s and has had a devastating effect in the western grassland states. It was first recorded in Michigan in the 1880’s. A litany of six insects, including a variety of beetles and a gall midge have been – and still are – being considered as biological control. The Spurge Hawk Moth made the short list and was tapped as part of the first wave of attack on the Leafy Spurge (it’s sole food plant in Europe). Goats are also very good at munching down on leafy Spurge, although they are good at munching down on a great many other things as well. The sphinx is a specialist.
Most of the introductions were in the western states, but there was also one in Ontario a number of years back. Unfortunately, Even though this hawk moth larva is a voracious Spurge eater it appears that it has had little real effect. At the very least it provides a colorful new member of our local fauna and one which, more importantly, doesn’t compete with any native insect.
The first recorded sighting of the Spurge Hawk Moth in Michigan, according to the MSU extension site, was on June 10, 2013. That individual was an adult captured in the Grand Traverse area. Some more larvae were spotted a month later in Leelanau County. This summer another blogger reported a caterpillar west of Gaylord. Antrim County, the location of my find, is in the same general area as the previous sightings but indicates a slow but steady expansion of range. By virtue of its late summer timing it also proves that these insects are double brooded in this state. I guess my posting makes for the forth “official” record and a spot on the meaningless achievement hall of fame podium!
The Spurge Sphinx larva does look very much like the Galium Sphinx and certain varieties of the White-lined Sphinx but tops both in sheer gaudiness. The horn and head are scarlet, and the rest of the body is speckled with black, red, and white markings befitting a “radical” snowboard or fashionable scarf design. Perhaps this is why it has chosen the trendy Grand Traverse area for its step into society!
The reason this gaily patterned sphinx was crossing the road, unlike the famous chicken of joke fame, was to get to the pupation side. It appears to be a full sized individual. Younger larvas are darker and each instar has a differing color pattern. From what I can tell this fellow was ready to take the next step. For now the caterpillar resides in a dirt-filled Styrofoam coffee cup prepared as a pupation chamber. It will, assuming it behaves in line with virtually all sphinx caterpillars, burrow down into the sand, split its layer of bright attire, and convert into a sleek pupa. There it will stay until emerging next spring as a third generation Michigander.
August 25, 2014
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
August 9, 2014
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.
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).
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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
It is easy to imagine the inner working of a squirrel’s mind. They can be excused for being continually distracted because nuts must certainly dominate their thinking. Why else would they stop in the middle of a street in the midst of heavy traffic? “Nuts, cars, danger, nuts, nuts, nuts, cars, nuts…” is not a healthy thought pattern (and one that usually ends tragically after the fourth “nut.”).
It is unfair, of course, to pursue this line of reasoning. Squirrels are multidimensional being – not as fascinating and deep as wolves or chimpanzees perhaps, but complicated in their own way. They are not all about nuts and would likely go nuts eating nothing but nuts. During the summer, when nuts are scarce, they become fungal connoisseurs and actively seek mushrooms.
Given that many of the top chefs in the world are fungal connoisseurs and are well respected for it, our bushy-tailed rodent friends are certainly worthy of elevated human perception. I wonder how many great chefs have been hit by cars when pondering culinary thoughts and ignoring traffic? This would be worth investigating. But I diverge.
The mushrooming skills exhibited by the local Grey Squirrels are something to behold. They eagerly devour any ‘shroom that dares to poke its gilled head above the ground and, I must say, look refreshed while doing it. I wouldn’t dare suggest that mushrooms often have a nutty taste lest any nearby squirrel goes postal at the mere mention of the word “nut” (at least in the month of July and August).
I am unwilling to taste the mushrooms that the Greys are currently harvesting in my yard. I therefore will not have to put myself in the position of declaring their nut-like taste. By general appearance they seem to be members of the Russula family. This large fungal group runs the gamut from being highly edible to bland to poisonous in terms of human consumption. The mushrooms in this squirrel discussion are gilled and have large reddish caps, easily crumbled, which are somewhat turned up at the edges on larger specimens. These caps are sticky and shiny when wet and often have pine needles or detritus sticking to them. Overall, this description matches that of the Blackish-Red Russulas (by the way, this is their actual species name and not one I just made up). It’s probably not worth mentioning, but this species is not poisonous but relatively inedible due to its “acrid taste.”
Our taste is has nothing to do with squirrel taste. Oddly enough, squirrels have no aversion to poisonous mushrooms so this is a moot point when it comes to edibility. One species of Russula, the Emetic Russula, is quite poisonous to humans but is eagerly eaten by Red Squirrels without effect (well, other than leaving them with a sense of satisfaction).
There are several color varieties of mushroom-eating Grey Squirrels about. All are the same species, but several are black and one is a “normal” reddish brown grey squirrel (or is it a blackish-red grey squirrel?). There is no particular modus operandi when attacking mushrooms, although they seem to go for the caps. One of them hung upside-down while devouring his prize while yet another served it up on the ground. It held the outer edge of the cap like a wheel and took bites out of the rim as it rotated. Sometimes they will simply take a few bites out of a standing mushroom and leave it in place.
I’m not sure why, but these fellows never seem to finish a whole mushroom. Often they’ll drop one, half consumed, and then move on to other things. I suppose it could be due to a mental distraction – perhaps feeling the sudden urge to cross a road or stopping to check the status of the ripening crop of nuts, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. It is probably due to the sheer abundance of the fungal treats and is equivalent to an overindulgent child leaving the pizza crust.
July 25, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
July 17, 2014
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
July 9, 2014
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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