Naturespeak

April 25, 2015

One Pic Post: A Bat at the Back Door

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 7:48 pm

Big Brown Bat photo Big Brown Bat_zpsvhuqoakw.jpg

After a chilly spring night dipping into the low 30’s, a Big Brown Bat was the last thing I expected to see in the morning (for that matter, I wouldn’t have expected to see a Little Brown Bat either or a Little Big Brown…whatever). The creature was perched gargoyle-like over the back door to the Monroe County Historical Museum – well above the keystone where the wall meets the overhang. The place was well out of the morning sun and not a very “secretive” location in terms of bat realty. I can only assume that the fellow was caught out late (or very early) attempting to gather in a few frozen midge-flies before deciding to seek temporary refuge. There were no droppings on the ground beneath his perch to indicate that this was a habitual hangout.
The museum staff had mixed reactions to the creature, but the overall impression was one of fascination. There were, of course, many stories generated and an excuse for a few minutes for some favorite bat tales. For the rest of the morning the little Big Brown was “our bat.” It ceased to be “my bat” upon leaving at noon and I’m sure it was left in good hands.

April 16, 2015

Delightful Divers

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 8:33 pm

Predaceous Diving Beetle photo Predaceous Diving Beetle 3_zps2ofggzir.jpg

We officially “opened” our tiny cabin for the season and I un-officially opened my lake eyes last week. Only a few weeks earlier the water was still frozen solid, but on this bright April morning Dollar Lake was coming to life.  Save for some pale Spatterdock leaves pushing up from the bottom there was very little flora visible in the dockside water. Only a sparse faunal assemblage greeted the eye. Small schools of Spot-tailed Shiners swam the shallows and a couple of water beetles cavorted among them. The beetles proved to be Predaceous Diving Beetles and, true to form, these critters were predating and diving.

One of the beetles grabbed onto an injured minnow and carried it under the cover of some floating debris. It’s not clear that it caused the original injury to the thing but obvious that it was intent on finishing it off. Adult Predaceous divers are, despite their name, more scavenger than killer.Predaceous Diving Beetle - Getting Air photo Predaceous Diving Beetle getting Air Re-charge_zpsarqelp4y.jpg

Another individual backed its hind end out of the water in order to take in a supply of oxygen into the bubble under its wing covers (see above). Although it should be no surprise, given that Predaceous Diving Beetles are air breathers, it was a bit surprising to see two of them eventually crawl out of the water to warm themselves in the mid-day sun. It was a bit like the “Predaceous Diving Beetle Show” and they were performing every trick in the little live book of water beetles.

Predaceous Diving Beetle photo Predaceous Diving Beetle 4_zpsyqf3racl.jpg

This particular species apparently has no common name to speak of, but is known as Acilius mediatus in the big book of Water Beetles.  The species name means something like “being halved or in the middle” in Latin and the genus name refers to a Roman proper name, so I guess we have to say the whole name means “Half a Roman.”  That is, of course, ridiculous but then again I never claimed to be an etymologist or even a trained entomologist.  Why not just call it “Simpson’s Bohemian Water Beetle” and leave it at that. Personally I think the “Mediator” would do the trick (it sounds sort of like the “Terminator” without the copyright infringement).

As for lifestyle there is little in the literature that is specific to this beetle. Like all members of the predaceous diving clan their larvae are voracious aquatic predators. This species prefers small forest pools with bare peaty bottoms. Dollar Lake is certainly nothing more than a glorified woodland pool, or half a lake, and would fit the habitat definition for this half beetle.

Whatever the real name, the Mediators are attractive little insects. The shelled portion of the body is very smooth and the brown elytra nicely marked with a wiggly tranverse design. Clearly displayed on the sunning individuals the back set of legs are equipped with an oar-like fringe for swimming. Short front legs are used for grasping prey (or simply holding onto half-dead prey).

I spent a half hour and took a half a dozen pictures of these beetles before the beetle show ended. A cold gust of wind rippled the surface and sent the beetles back into their element and I back into the warmth of my “half a house” to dream up a possible back story for justifying a glorious name like Simpson’s Bohemian Water Beetle.

Predaceous Diving Beetle photo Predaceous Diving Beetle_zpspfzhkg7u.jpg

April 4, 2015

One Pic Post: A Portrait in Black & Red

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 4:45 pm

Turkey Vulture in the Barn Window photo IMG_8447_zps8al6jcrw.jpg

The Turkey Vultures are back and seeking out their old haunts. Once again, the old barn pair have returned to nest. I can’t say I know them well (can one ever truly know a Vulture?) but I’ve seen them hanging about a derelict barn in the vicinity of Somerset Twp., Mi. over the past few years. My observations are always fleeting because I pass them when in the process of coming and going elsewhere.

Let me say that I assume these vultures are nesting within the barn because they are paired, it is an old barn, and well….vultures have been known to take up housekeeping in old barns.  Turkey Vultures really don’t build nests, per se, but merely scrape together some scraps of debris or wood to function as a “this is my nest” perimeter. They defend their nest site with projectile shots of vomit and therefore don’t really need an elaborate nest. Nuff said on that.

These Somerset birds have a knack for being photogenic which is why I have been prompted on multiple occasions over multiple years to turn around and snatch multiple pictures. Sometimes they are both perched high upon the peak of the barn roof or singly upon the viney top of the nearby power pole or silo. On this latest sighting one of the birds was framed within the inky blackness of the loft opening. The late afternoon sun highlighted the brownish nature of the bird’s black feathering and ignited that wonderfully wrinkled red head.

March 30, 2015

Spider in the Sap

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 11:37 am

Frozen Fishing Spider photo IMG_8378_zpsgcsolaty.jpg

The spring flow of maple sap is just about at an end. In terms of the Red Maples I am tending this season, it is a stretch to say that the season actually ever started – it’s been a poor year due to sustained cold temperatures and the natural whims of the annual cycle. It’s a pressure thing, you see. Freezing nights generate the negative pressure for drawing sap from the roots and thawing days create the positive pressure responsible for moving that sap up the trunk to the branches (and into the buckets). We’ve had plenty of freezing nights but they’ve mostly been followed up by equally freezing days and thus the sap flow has been faulty. Follow?

Frozen Sap in the Tap photo IMG_8468_zpsctkwgs5a.jpg

This is not to say that the sap buckets have been completely empty as of late. They’ve generated a supply of six and eight-legged contents worth talking about as we wait for the sap to melt. Spiders and Stoneflies are drawn to the buckets like flies to …well, you know.

After all, you know what they say: “A spider in the sap means eight more days of sugaring.”  Actually no one says that- I made that up as a lame way to breach the subject.  A spider in the sap simply means that smooth-sided metal sap buckets are dandy spider traps. A huge Fishing Spider found herself trapped in one of the buckets early last week. I’m assuming she fell in when the bucket was dry and became immersed by a two day flow of sap. She was clinging to the bottom (aka water side) side of the skim ice and imprisoned thus.

Fishing Spiders in Sap Bucket photo IMG_8377_zpsofjnav4a.jpg

A smaller male Fishing Spider tenaciously cling to the dry side of the ice and passed eight-eyed glances at his potential mate below. I assumed the female was dead because she was totally immersed and obviously had been for some time. Jarring the bucket, however, stimulated some leg movement and proved otherwise. Long story short, I liberated the hapless couple and send them on their merry (if slow moving) frigid way. She was short one leg but otherwise none the worse for wear.

Fishing Spider photo IMG_8389_zpslojcdp1s.jpg

Fishing spiders are water spiders, so being in liquid is a natural thing for them. They are not long-term aquatic beasts, however. Like all arachnids they breathe oxygen through flap-like “book lungs” and they depend upon their coat of fine hairs to trap an air-filled bubble layer around them when diving. They can’t sustain this for a very long and need to come up for air. Apparently when frozen, or nearly so, the oxygen demand is nil and the hairs maintain a dry bubble wrap surrounding. The large female was dry as a bone when I rolled the ice over and removed her.

Winter Stonefly photo IMG_8473_zps0m9ytpek.jpg

Several of the riverside buckets contained their share of Winter Stoneflies. These dark bodied insects are the very essence of the winter spirit and the sugaring season is their crowning moment in life. Equipped with only poorly functioning mouths they must have been attracted by the sugary sap ice. Freezing concentrates the fructose sugar at the surface and it can be lapped up like a Popsicle. As they say “A Stonefly in the sap bucket bodes well for the river that flows near it.” Again, this is not a traditional saying, but it should be. Stoneflies are good omens and these individuals speak well of the purity of the River Raisin.

Winter Stonefly photo IMG_8472_zpswxs2mzjb.jpg

As aquatic nymphs they can only live in clean, flowing, high-oxygen water and are very pollution intolerant. Since cold water contains the highest amount of oxygen, these creatures restrict their activity to the cold season. The nymphs actually burrow into the river bottom and hibernate during the summer (yes, you read correctly- summer hibernation) to avoid the warm oxygen poor summer water. They come back out to finish up their life cycle as fall arrives and emerge as winged adults as soon as the ice breaks up in late winter. The cold-tolerant adults only live for a short time after mating but know a good thing when they find it in a bucket.

You know what they say: “A Stonefly in the bucket is worth two spiders in the Drink”

March 21, 2015

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:21 am

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 4_zpsuudwca6f.jpg

There is no more dramatic expression of winter’s back being broken than the annual river ice breakup. Fighting against the ever present pressure of flowing water, river ice always exists on the edge. It gives way dramatically at the first sign of weakness. This winter, although it started otherwise, turned out to be another harsh one and enabled the River Raisin ice to reach a thickness in excess of one foot.  The river finally broke up last week and, true to form, it was a spectacular event.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 2_zpsow3ydr6d.jpg

First piling up at the Waterloo Bend, the mass of fractured ice eventually jammed up downriver at Hellenberg Park last Saturday. The weekend flow temporarily backed up onto the flats and deposited a field of huge blocks over the grass. The Baseball diamond was populated with a hundred new “base pads.” There would be no spring training on this field until after a week of warm weather permits it. A few Ring-billed Gull outfielders, waiting for their first crack at a fly ball, waded through the puddles.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Gull in the Outfield photo Gull in the Watery Outfield_zpsn4jvwr1p.jpg

Out on the river the ice jam filled the channel from shore to shore as it waited out the breaking of the river mouth ice. The jumble of ice blocks created a tortured landscape – an icy version of a construction landfill filled with broken pieces of building concrete. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the sheer amount of wood in the pile. The winter’s accumulation of mangled branches, tree trunks, and lumber was staggering.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 3_zpskerbx0vy.jpg  River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 6_zpsfs4wdxqd.jpg River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup 7_zpscmf3vs1x.jpg

Several robins and a flock of Grackles hopped among the branches in the ice field. They seemed to find assorted “goodies” amid the chaos, although one can only imagine what they were. If indeed Robins were a true sign of spring, I would title the photograph below as “Dual Signs of Spring – Red-breast riding the Breakup.”  Unfortunately, because this particular robin was probably one of the regular winter residents it would be wrong to assume he was a recent arrival. I’m not afraid of being wrong, however, so I’ll put the picture up anyway.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Robin riding the Flow photo Boulder caught up in Ice Flow 2_zpsblq8hwjm.jpg

The whole scene got me to thinking about the ice age. Much of our landscape was created by continental glaciers grinding their way across the continent, collecting boulders, rocks and soil along the way, and depositing them hundreds of miles away. Each chunk of river ice was a mini glacier of sorts – it is far from pure. Large rocks, and even some boulders, were embedded in their matrix. Buckets of soil, trapped within the layers of accumulated freezing, were being transported from their origin some 50 miles away. On small scale, the melting edge of each block could be mistaken for the leading edge of a glacier. I was hoping to find a tiny mammoth melting out of one of the chunks, but was disappointed.

River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Edge of Block photo Rubble caught up in River Ice_zps2pmk69bl.jpg  River Raisin Ice Jam 2015 - Rocks, soil in ice photo 2115 River Raisin Ice Breakup_zpszypjpbyk.jpg

The final stages of the breakup were starting as I observed the scene. Every so often the whole mass crept forward – robins, timber, rocks, and all. A dull rumbling, accompanied by tinkling ice cube notes, filled the air. It would come to a grinding halt after a few minutes.

Sometime over the course of that evening, the whole dam thing flushed out into Lake Erie. I’m sure it made an impressive sight and sound but I wasn’t there to hear it, (you know what they say about “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?”).  Regardless of the lack of witnesses, the river was ice free and flowing freely in the following dawn’s light. Spring had arrived on the fractured back of a river.

March 7, 2015

Spirit Ducking

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:54 pm

Diving Bufflehead photo IMG_7948_zpshpfykjk4.jpg

The River Raisin duck population has provided ample grist for my winter offerings on this blog. I’ve focused most of my attention on the Goldeneyes but feel it would be a disservice to ignore their little cousins the Buffleheads. After all, who am I to deny publicity to the waterfowl John James Audubon called the “beautiful miniature of the Golden-Eye Duck.” The problem is that these little divers spend so much under the water that they are hard to observe.  Add to this fact that there are only a few of them present on the river and you have a duck with little air time.

Bufflehead Drake with Mallard photo IMG_7935_zpsl44kt7ms.jpg

On a rare sunny day last week I was able to have some air time with a drake Bufflehead. The bird, although tiny, stood out amongst the giant geese and mallards milling about it. Male waterfowl are always the pretty ones. I’d never say that the females of the species are plain but would say they are practically attired in brown with attractively placed white cheek patches. Bright colors would make the gals look fat anyway. Drake Buffleheads, on the other hand, are permitted to make full use of striking black and white patterning and reflected color (iridescence).

The white patch on the head is the best field mark to identify Drake Buffleheads. From afar and on cloudy days (another word for Michigan Days) the rest of the head appears to be black or dull dark green. Full sunlight transforms this muted darkness into a rainbow of Kelly greens, Royal blues, Barney purples, Lemon yellows, and rich deep Nick ‘O the Night blacks. The stunning iridescence of the dark portion of the head is a little appreciated feature. This certainly is a feature geared toward attracting the females during courtship since it has to be seen close-up in order to be fully appreciated.

Bufflehead Drake photo IMG_7826_zpsalo62lti.jpg

Buffleheads have many nick-names. Rainbow-head is not, regrettably, one of them. Scientifically they are burdened with the Latin name Bucephala albeola which means whitish cowhead, or something like that – referring to the distinctive large white patch on their very prominent head. The common name is a corruption of Buffalo head and yet another nod to the big-headed thing.  Alternate names, such as “Butter-ball,” “Butter-box”, “Dipper,” “Marionette,” and “Spirit Duck” are body & behavior references. Butter-ball, for instance, aptly describes the chunky round body; Dipper focuses on the bird’s constant habit of diving under to search for invertebrates; and Marionette defines the manner in which it bobs up and down like a cork.

Tracking down the reasoning for “Spirit Duck” is a bit more difficult.  This name is also applied to Goldeneyes from time to time, and could refer to the active – aka spirited -nature of both birds (suitable for membership in the college cheerleading squad – the big-headed kid with the flat feet). Another interpretation is that the ducks are always moving into and out of sight like a spirit (as in “Ooo-ooo-oo”). Hey, it could mean that these ducks look like mini-moonshine jugs (full of spirits) or that they look like little cows when viewed by people who are imbibing in a large quantity of spirits.  O.K., I don’t really know the WHY, although I have most of my money on the first interpretation.  Bufflehead is a perfectly good name for this elusive and spirited little cow-headed diving duck.

Bufflehead Drake photo IMG_7844_zpsmnx5lhoi.jpg

February 28, 2015

Captain Nemo’s Goldeneye

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 3:10 pm

Female Goldeneye in Threat pose photo IMG_7884_zps4uocldsf.jpg

Last week I returned to my favorite mid-winter wildlife watching spot, that being the River Raisin where it flows through mid-Monroe, to see what the bear went over the mountain to see (“to see what he could see”). What I saw were a variety of ducks reveling in the ice bound patch of open water. There were only two female Goldeneyes present in the crowd but two of a kind proved too much in this case. One of them simply could not stand the sight of the other and let her know it.

For the most part the dispute consisted of short wild splash ridden chases. Guttural grunts from the Goldeneyes accompanied each act, but most of the noise was generated by the other ducks trying to get out of the way. The aggressor, let’s call her “Maxima,” came at “Minima” with a direct frontal attack. Wings were employed like oars along with foot kicks to drive the attacker forward. The attackee made no attempt to rebuff the assault and fled with similar flair – occasionally diving to escape.

Feuding Goldeneye Females photo IMG_7866_zpso8nsfjrn.jpg

Although the action was fun to watch, the body posturing preceding each attack was even more entertaining. Leveling her head out even with the water surface, Maxima swam directly toward her rival at half speed before exploding into the previously described action. Often she dipped her bill into the water so that only the upper half of her head was visible. Viewed for the front, the bright yellow eyes were used to full intimidation effect. For all the world this behavior looked like the ship-ramming scene in “Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea” where Nemo’s submarine breaks the surface and speeds towards its hapless victim -the windows glowing with a fiery anger.

Female Goldeneye in Threat pose photo IMG_7885_zps5qkgxxup.jpg

Such aggression at this time of year probably relates to courtship. There was a male bird a short way up river, although he was not yet in courtship mode. The aggressive female was possibly having a hissy fit at the thought of this hussy hanging around just in the event that “her” man-duck decides to start the dance. The hussy never actually left the scene, however, so these attacks were merely an exercise in futility.

We tend to think of ducks as picture-perfect stamp art and it is refreshing to see them as living beings with fire in the belly and in the eyes!

Female Goldeneye in Threat pose photo IMG_7962_zpsou2el5eu.jpg

February 21, 2015

Speedwell’s Moxie

Filed under: BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 9:34 am

 photo PersianSpeedwellFloweringinearlyFebruary1_zpsbf1a825e.jpg

It wasn’t a miracle but given the context it kinda seemed like one. There growing out of a chink in the stone wall at Audubon State Park was a Persian Speedwell (aka Bird’s Eye Speedwell) in bloom. They were tiny blooms – near microscopic, in fact – but flowers none-the-less. I should mention that it was early-February and that the temperature hovered in the low 20’s. The biting winds, accompanied by snow flurries, were dragging the wind chills down into zero territory. It was cold enough to drive any human to seek shelter. Yet, this exposed little plant was mocking the season with an unseasonable display of green growth and sky blue petals.

As stated in my last blog, Audubon Park is located in Henderson, Kentucky on the south bank of the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana.  This place is “southish” but not near “fur enuff to ‘spect greens to be sproutin yit.”  All of the native plants were still deep in winter mode. Even the maples where suspending any hope of running sap. Even though it is an anthropomorphic term, moxie is the only word that came to mind regarding this plant.

 photo PersianSpeedwellFloweringinearlyFebruary_zps25c58807.jpg

A weed by any other name (originally from Eurasia), the Persian Speedwell is a splendid example of what is referred to as a Winter Annual. By definition such a plant germinates in the autumn, lives through the winter, produces seed and dies the following season. It goes beyond all expectations, however, to actually bloom in the winter when early spring would do just fine.

Though hairy, the Speedwell is not especially so and what little it has provides meager to nil insulation value. No, it appears that the secret of this particular Speedwell’s ability to bloom at such a stressful time can be chalked up primarily to location, location, and something else….um, oh yes, location. Located on a south facing stone wall it can bask in the direct rays of the winter sun. The micro temperatures that surround the plant would be well above the ambient temperature on sunny winter days. The rocks would also store some of the heat and buffer the nighttime environment a bit as well. This plant took these slight advantages and ran with them.

 photo PersianSpeedwellFloweringinearlyFebruary2_zps16bfc8f4.jpg

Here is yet another example of how nature’s rules, although they can be set among stones, are not set in stone. There really are no rigid rules in the natural world. Just ask the flocks of frigid Robins hanging about Evansville on that same day. In spite of modern myth, Robins are not Spring birds but year-round birds which frequently overwinter on site. They are used to cold weather. Those birds seeking shelter in the leeward side of a holly bush, however, looked miserably cold and self-doubting. Should I have told them about that cheery little Speedwell flowering over yonder I’m sure they’d of told me exactly where to stuff it.

 photo FrozenRobinsinEvansvilleIndianaFebruarytemp20degrees_zps191d768f.jpg

February 14, 2015

A Carolina Chickadee in Kentucky

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:12 am

Carolina Chickadee photo IMG_7759_zps58243fe3.jpg

There were very few – in fact, no – human visitors to the museum at John James Audubon State Park in Henderson Kentucky the other day. This wasn’t surprising given that the particular day we chose was bitter cold, snowy, and windy. There were plenty of avian visitors flocking to the feeders outside the observation window. Titmice, Goldfinches, Downy Woodpeckers, Cardinals, and White-breasted Nuthatches were eagerly gobbling up the seed.

It was an average feeder assembly and not one worth reporting other than the presence of one species – at least for a Northerner like me. Several Chickadees flitted about this scene and dangled from the wire mesh at the bottom of the suet feeder. It occurred to me that even though these were “Black-capped” Chickadees they weren’t actually Black-capped Chickadees but Carolina Chickadees. South of the Ohio River (the actual line spans across southern Indiana/Illinois) these birds replace their northern cousins. If it weren’t for this stark geographical fact, it would be extremely hard for the average person to tell the two apart. Being average, I had to rely on the geography test.

Carolina Chickadee photo IMG_7760_zpsf73f741e.jpg

There is a real physical difference between the two. Carolina Chickadees are slightly smaller than Black-caps, and have a neater edging to their bibs. In truth, these minor traits are far from convincing or observable for that matter. Even the birds themselves can’t quite tell who is who and will hybridize along a narrow strip of territory where their borders meet. Geography makes this an elementary question, my dear Watson, but the aural test works if you live in the hybrid zone (or don’t know where you are).

Carolina Chickadees have a four note call that sounds something like “fee be fee bay” or “Phoebe Baby”. Black-caps employ a simpler two note call. If the on-line literature is to be believed, the hybrid birds utter a three note call!

I truth, the real reason I bring this topic up has to do with another question of geography. The Carolina Chickadee pictured above was hanging from the feeder at the John James Audubon museum. This great naturalist/artist once lived in Henderson, Kentucky and the park and museum is dedicated to his memory. It is a small bit of poetic justice that my Chickadee encounter took place here. Mr. Audubon was responsible for providing the first scientific description of the Carolina Chickadee and his name will be forever attached to the bird.

Audubon encountered this diminutive bird while in South Carolina in 1820 and named it the Carolina Titmouse. Today the scientific name has morphed into Poecile carolinensis (Audubon 1820).

I met J.J. later in the day at Henderson’s city park but didn’t get a chance to complement him on his discovery. He was studying a White Pelican at the time and it was too dang cold to stand around and wait.

John James Audubon Statue at Henderson, Ky photo IMG_7747_zps05e3a5bc.jpg

January 31, 2015

B.O.P s in the E.C.T. s

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 3:24 pm

Kestrel in a Cottonwood 3 photo IMG_7559_zps0fc32a32.jpg

Monroe County is located on ancient lake bed. The flat land is the product of a time when Lake Erie had aspirations of grandeur. Flush with the melt waters of the great glaciers, the lake once lapped against the moraine hills around Ann Arbor (before the University was there, of course). Eastern Cottonwoods are the dominant tree here because they thrive in the moist clayey soils deposited during that time. They can attain great height and size and are, in a contorted and sad way, our version of the Redwoods. They lord over the landscape where you don’t have to get very high to lord over (it).

It is natural, therefore, that local birds of prey gravitate to Eastern Cottonwoods as their observation posts of choice. It is fitting, although bordering on sarcastic, to say that if you seek b. o. p.’s then look in the high branches of the E. C. T.s. I offer three examples – actually two and a half – as my exhibits in today’s blog.

Throughout S.E. Michigan, and especially along the Detroit River and Western Lake Erie, Cottonwoods and Bald Eagles go together like bad taste and reality television. They build their massive nests in them, roost in them, and generally perform their daily work among them.

Bald Eagle in a Cottonwood photo IMG_7382_zpsdf73871a.jpg  Bald Eagle in a Cottonwood photo IMG_7383_zps4f856179.jpg

I spotted one of the resident Bald Eagles eying the River Raisin on a recent bitter January morning. Perched high in the branches of a large Cottonwood on the opposite bank, the mature Bald Eagle technically wasn’t “working” at the time I observed it. It was looking around but not down – which goes a long way towards explaining why the hundreds of Canada Geese and Mallards cavorting in the icy water were unconcerned. Fish are the major item on the eagle’s menu, but waterfowl are often a preferred side dish so it is wise for them to pay attention to the moods of a nearby predator. This eagle was chilling – In more ways than one – and therefore not a threat.

Kestrel in a Cottonwood 2 photo IMG_7551_zps7046def9.jpg

Further east, and a week later, a male Kestrel chose the highest possible end of the highest possible branch on a medium sized Cottonwood at Sterling State Park along Lake Erie. Proportionally, however, this bird of prey was about the same size to its Cottonwood as the Eagle was to its tree. The tiny raptor was using his cottony perch to scan the grassland below for Meadow Voles. Occasionally it shifted its head from side to side in order to get a perspective view of a potential target and then nervously pumped its tail upon discovering that the movement was generated by a wind driven leaf.

Kestrel in a Cottonwood 1 photo IMG_7543_zps09fcbf4f.jpg

The bright colors of the American Kestrel are muted in the dull light of mid-winter. Feathers fluffed out as protection against the cold further diffuse this colorful attire. Even so, this bird could not hide its varying hues of orange, rust, and slatey blue.  Black “eye spots” on the back of the head were especially visible on this hunter. The Kestrel did not make a kill during the time I watched it and cast quite a few “act like a tree and leave” glances in my direction before I got the message.

 photo IMG_7574_zpsbf24b229.jpg

My final offering comes in the form of a pellet as opposed to an actual predator in a Populus tree. Found on the ground beneath the cover of a vine tangle, this large pellet (about 3 in. long) consisted entirely of Ring-billed Gull feathers and bones. I can state the feather identity with certainty because of the single Ring-billed Gull wing that laid atop the vine cluster overhead (see above).  Scattered down feathers and whitewash lay about the place. The branches of a huge Cottonwood towered over it all, of course. There is little doubt that a large bird of prey sat upon its branches while discombobulating the unfortunate gull – dropping pellet, parts, and poo in the process.

Gull-filled Owl Pellet 2 photo IMG_7722_zpsaa937367.jpgGull-filled Owl Pellet 1 photo IMG_7721_zps2170a66b.jpg

I cannot say for certain who the pellet perpetrator was in this case but will give it a hoot. Owls and raptors (daytime birds of prey) both cast pellets. I am guessing it to be from a Great-horned Owl due to the tremendous size and relatively good condition of remaining quills within. Snowy Owls also produce such pellets but rarely chuck them in a wooded setting. A Peregrine Falcon would be a likely raptor candidate – especially given their bird-oriented tastes – but from what I can decipher their pellets are much smaller and more amorphous (due to stronger stomach acids).

So there you have it. Cottonwoods and carnivorous fowl have a somewhat commensal* relationship in this neck of the woods (or foot of the water, as it were). These birds of prey were definitely barking up the right tree – even if it was really the only tree!

Eastern Cottonwood Bark photo IMG_7582_zpscd3fed88.jpg

 

*Definition time: Commensalism means a relationship in which one organism benefits while the other is relatively unaffected (in other words the Cottonwoods do not derive any benefit from the birds whereas the birds gain useful observation posts).

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