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
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.
July 1, 2014
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.
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).
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).
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…)
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.
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
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.
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.
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-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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
June 8, 2014
Apart from the increasing clumps of white birch and abandoned snowmobiles, dead roadside porcupines are a sure way to mark one’s passage into Northern Michigan. It is near impossible to travel over the “quill line” without spotting at least one or two lifeless bristle mounds on the way to your final destination. It would be easy to assume that these large rodents are born dead on the side of the road if you are not a resident.
Even though I have spent considerable time in porky country and the critters are extremely common, I’d never seen a live porcupine. The fact that they are primarily nocturnal certainly influenced the situation as well. The animals were burned into my young mind, however, thanks to the tales of a favorite uncle. The Boyer side of the family lived on Sugar Island, located on the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie – literally spitting distance from the far-away land of Canada-da-da-da.
My Uncle Dan went through several dogs over the years and not a one lived a full life that I recall. Whenever one came back quill-ridden, due to a disastrous encounter with a porcupine, it was “taken for a walk.” Uncle, the dog, and a rifle entered the deep woods behind the shed and only uncle and the shotgun returned. So, in a way I learned that porcupines kill dogs with a rifle. I was never there when these things events happened but heard about them several times over each summer’s visit.
Secretly I wondered if I would be taken on a similar walk if I ever got quilled. I dreaded a porcupine encounter and for over half a century never had to deal with it. By the way, I’ve since found out that most quills can be extracted safely without the use of lead, but that is irrelevant at this point.
A long-feared event finally took place at our Dollar Lake cabin a few weeks ago. A Porky ambled into the yard and I ambled out to encounter it. My uncle having passed away many years ago (and in heaven, no doubt, after a brief time in purgatory), I felt safe. It was a completely serendipitous occasion, but fortunately I was ready.
The animal, a small one by quill pig standards (they can get up to 30 pounds), was intent on crossing the yard along the lakeside. It was caught off guard by my appearance and indignantly rose up on his hind legs to look at me with a “really?” look. After casting a longing glance over to where he wanted to go, he turned back to look where he’d just come from and apparently made a decision to retreat. Acting in slow motion, he dropped back on all fours, turned his rump in my direction and bloomed. Yes, he bloomed.
The transformation of a porcupine at rest to one in defensive mode is a remarkable thing. By tightening the skin on his hind quarters it raised a ring of extremely long hairs to expose a formidable patch of quills hidden beneath. White quills, contrasting with the coal black underfur surrounding them, lined both sides of the tail and created a menacing rump crescent. The porky waited for my next move – knowing full well that if I chose to molest him I would pay a price. His whole demeanor was that of bored confidence (“if we both just go our own way things will be o.k., so how about it?”).
According to the literature, the average porcupine has over 10,000 quills. The longest, at about 4 inches, are located on the rump and the shortest are on the sides of the head. There are no quills on the belly at all and this has long been the attack point for predators such as Fishers.
Each quill is a hollow modified hair. The tips are equipped with multiple backward-facing barbs. As my uncle could have told you, once these barbs gain access to dog flesh they will work their way in until…well, lead poisoning results! Like I said before, they can be removed if “deflated” (cut) and firmly pulled. The porky doesn’t throw these quills at their attacker. They are loosely attached to the skin via a narrow base and they detach as soon as the tips come in contact with the enemy.
Native tribes made heavy use of porcupine quills for decorative purposes. Before the advent of European glass beads, these plastic-like hairs were dyed and sewn into fabric or birch bark to create stunning designs. Gathering quills was relatively simple because porkies are slow and easily clubbed (quills are no defense against large sticks).
After holding his threat pose for a minute, my porky turned back and beat a retreat through the cedars from whence he came. It was not a hasty retreat by any means; in fact I believe an opossum might have a speed edge over a running porky. I will admit that it must be hard to keep your butt skin tight while running and I probably should cut this porky some slack. We’d have to pitch an un-armed porcupine against an opossum sometime to see who would win such a foot race. If that race was across a road, I’d wager both would be creamed before reaching the other side, unfortunately.
The porcupine sought safety in a maple tree which he scaled with bear-like ability until reaching a high crotch. Finally letting his quills down, he settled down to wait out the threat. Even though I wasn’t present for most of the time, he remained there for over four hours before descending. As a final wager, I’d bet that this porky did not enjoy his encounter nearly as much as I did. In fact I’ll bet he dreads it.
May 31, 2014
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In nature, things are always changing- beaver ponds to meadows, meadows to forests, Hanna Montana deteriorates into Miley Cyrus etc. Nothing really remains the same. Even sturgeons, those timeless bastions of bottom feeding, change individual form as they grow from fry to formidable fish. They also, like all organisms, go through daily and monthly changes depending on seasonal and courtship needs etc. In short, nature is a dynamic and not a static entity.
Much of the joy of nature watching revolves around observing both long term and seasonal changes. Of these two, however, seasonal changes are the most accessible for the curious naturalist (“phenology” for those of you working on a crossword puzzle). Birders are keen to minute plumage changes and some of them can get in an exhaustive description of a 2nd year Herring Gull before their first sip of Green Tea in the morning. Green Thumbers are all about growing seasons. A Brown Thumber, such as myself, is fully capable of sucking the joy out of a simple seasonal observation by encumbering the reader with extraneous details. It is time for me to do so again.
Let’s take Cedar Apple Rust and Red Squirrels as two examples to illustrate “The Pageant –pageant- pageant Of-of-of Nature-nature-nature” (he says with a booming echo-chamber voice). These two are rarely mentioned in the same sentence but both organisms share a reddish coloration and a period of dramatic change over the past month.
I took a look at the Cedar Apple Rust gall in a previous blog and won’t rehash the topic except to bring us up to snuff. The gall, a hard meteorite-like growth with multiple “eyes”, is found on the branches of Red Cedar trees. It is the alternate stage of a type of apple rust called Cedar Hawthorn Rust which spends one year on the leaves of hawthorn trees and next few years as a gall on Red Cedar. It takes several years for the cedar galls to mature and during this time they remain relatively dormant. I left off with this stage in my previously mentioned blog with a promise that I’d come back when they explode. This spring, true to my word, I returned to witness this wonderfully odd transformation.
The Spring rains incite these galls to exude long gelatinous “horns” in the manner of a Chia Pet from Hell. These structures, called telial horns, bear millions of tiny two-celled spores which float off into the air to infect Hawthorn Trees. Over the course of the spring season, the galls and their crop of snot horns dry up and re-swell with each passing weather system – releasing a new crop of spores each time.
Each cedar gall is good for up to 10 releases before being tapped out. Because the cycle plays out again and again every year, you can catch the annual show if you time your visits properly. As in all cycles there are good years and bad years (which gives some hope that Miley Cyrus will outgrow her fungal stage and return to dormancy).
The spring transformation of the Red Squirrel is far less dramatic than the Cedar –Cyrus thing. As mammals these expresso charged little rodents run through an annual molt cycle. They undergo a fall and spring do-over. Again, I have addressed this before but I was so amazed at the sudden visible change in one of my Dollar Lake squirrel that I feel compelled to share it (and, of course, explain it until it is no longer fun).
Red Squirrels undergo a spring and a fall molt. The two occur in opposite directions. The fall molt goes basically from back to front while the spring molt goes front to back. A good way to remember this is to reverse the normal phrasing we use for remembering time changes thus: “Spring back, Fall forward.” Remember this for it will serve you well in later life. This might be one of the qualifying questions asked by St. Peter when you ascend to the pearly gates.
Molting is a gradual process and hard to notice when in progress. It varies between individuals, but most Red Squirrels start spring molt by mid-April and complete it by June. Some individuals have yet to molt (as this backyard Red still in winter coat as of the last week of May). A comparison of the two pictures of my notch-eared friend, taken one month apart, will tell most of the story regarding the Spring molt. The first shot, taken in late April, shows the first stages and the second, snapped in late May, reveals a fully summarized squirrel.
You’ll notice in the first shot that the squirrel was still primarily in winter coat with grayish brown sides, a reddish back stripe and tail, ear tufts, and a dirty white belly. There was only a hint of a dark side stripe. A closer look, however, shows that this animal was already in molt. The face and eye ring are already garbed in short hair while a fuzzy top knot of winter hair remains.
By the time I took the second shot, the process was complete. The animal was covered with short reddish hairs with a clear black side stripe bordering a bright white belly. This is a portrait of a summer squirrel.
We missed the intermediate stages of the molt, but I can tell you what happened. The change began on the nose, chin, and feet. The process is so consistent that it began on the front feet and on the inner edge of the hind feet. The sides of the head go before the top and the rest continues along the sides and back until ending at the rump (a natural ending for sure). Somewhere along the way the ears tufts are dropped.
So there you have it. A squirrel and a spore ball can give us a small insight into a massive world of natural change. I guarantee neither subject would have been brought up in polite conversation until now. It is your duty to carry the ball and tell them something that they don’t really want to know.
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