Naturespeak

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.

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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).

January 26, 2015

Wind Ghosts and Frozen Caterpillars

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe,Plants — wykes @ 11:30 am

 

Rose Mallow in Winter photo IMG_7598_zpse8eda74c-1.jpg

A walk out on the dikes at the Pointe Mouillee State Game area in the middle of winter can be a bit like walking the Arctic Tundra. It’s little wonder that wintering Snowy Owls choose this place because it feels like home. Only broken cattail skeletons and clumped grasses serve as cover and because the dikes rise well above these there is no cover at all for the winter walker.  An infant breeze entering at lake grows into ferocious adulthood as it traverses the open expanse. In other words, it can be bitter cold even on “mild” days. The winter version of the marsh is not devoid of life, however, it’s just that you have work harder to find it.

 

Pointe Mouillee Marsh in January photo IMG_7654_zps254870ce-1.jpg

My last foray out onto the dikes was on a mid-20 degree day (that’s F, by the way – I don’t speak C). There was little wind, so the dreaded “Mouillee chill” was minimal.  A light snow refreshed the place and turned every Rose Mallow pod into an open cotton boll and highlighted the dome of every muskrat lodge in the ‘rat-pocked landscape.

Meadow Vole Tunnels in the Snow photo IMG_7651_zps87574d70-1.jpg

 

There was plenty of evidence that creatures were about on the previous evening. Countless Meadow Voles were taking advantage of the snow cover to forage on grasses under the snow. Their tunnels, evidenced by their fractured roofs and occasional exit holes, laced the dikes (see above).  Frustrated by such protective cover, predators can only hope to catch the slight movement of the snow in order to pinpoint the prey below. Brushed wing tips and talon marks indicate where one aerial predator attempted a halfhearted grab at an invisible morsel. White-footed Mice made frequent dashes across the open path during the night as well. Most executed a straight shot – slapping long tail marks from side to side as they went. The track of one individual, however, reveals a halted crossing, followed by a nervous retreat and then a renewed all-out dash (below). Perhaps it caught a glimpse of shadow from above or a movement from aside. You can never be too careful when you are a menu item.

White-footed Mouse Tracks in the Snow photo IMG_7672_zpsd408e265-1.jpg

 

Coyotes evidently patrol every inch of the place on their nightly rounds. Sitting down to contemplate the view, one of the canines left a familiar mark in the snow. Clear heel and hind foot prints and shifting front paw marks indicate that it might have paused to lick a small cut – as suggested by a spot of blood in the snow near the haunches. Last week my daughter’s Black Lab left a near identical mark (sans blood, of course) where it sat for several minutes to survey the back yard. Like two exclamation marks they mark the behavior of both wild and domestic dogs.

Coyote Sitting Tracks in the Snow photo IMG_7663_zpsa452103b-1.jpg

 

Perhaps the most surprising finds were several Tiger Moth caterpillars walking across the snow. I’ll remind you that even though the sun was peeking out from time to time, it was in the twenties. These hardy insects were slowly making their way across the surface. Due to their lightness they left no tracks and due to their speechlessness did not offer an explanation for their seemingly risky behavior.

Ruby Tiger Moth Caterpillar in January photo IMG_7603_zpsd58bcc54-1.jpg  Ruby Tiger Moth Caterpillar in January photo IMG_7608_zps9e6660d4-1.jpg

I believe they were Ruby Tiger Moth larvae – a worldwide species which feeds on a wide variety of plants such as goldenrod, ironweed and plantain. They overwinter under the snow as larvae and emerge to complete their growth and pupate in the late spring. They have a recorded habit of coming out onto the snow as caterpillars and can withstand freezing temperatures via a combination of anti-freeze saturated blood (full of so-called “crypt-protectors”) and solar energy trapping body hairs and black skin color.

Ruby Tiger Moth Caterpillar in January photo IMG_7612_zps06298f4d-1.jpg

 

I did not spot any Snowy Owls, and only found a loose feather of a Short-eared Owl, but was treated to the graceful moves a pair of Northern Harriers. These birds perfectly represent the spirit of the winter marsh.

Harrier over Pte. Mouillee Marsh photo IMG_7615_zps30e23b56-1.jpg  Northern Harrier (male) at Pte. Mouillee photo IMG_7613_zpsc8c099b1-1.jpg

These slender marsh hunters floated low over the cat-tails and canary grass hummocks searching for the sight and sound of mice and songbirds. Like ghosts they passed by on silent wings -riding the light breeze and rocking ever so slightly from its effect. Both birds were marked with white rumps and held their long narrow wings with a species-defining crook at the wrist. The male was pale gray – nearly white – with stark black wing tips (above) and the female was dark rufous brown (below).

Northern Harrier (female) at Pointe Mouillee photo IMG_76252_zps31d6cdcf-1.jpg

 

 

I tracked them for as long as I could but they vanished into the frigid landscape well before they should have been out of sight. Like many of the marsh secrets they probably chose to remain aloof and somewhat mysterious.

Northern Harrier (female) at Pointe Mouillee photo IMG_7625_zps941c309d-1.jpg

 

January 18, 2015

Whistler’s Mother

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 3:33 pm
Goldeneye Taking a Dive photo IMG_7485_zps0506cb7a.jpg
You may know, if you are one of the two people who actually read my blog, that I am a scientific name fanatic of sorts. I like them because 1.) you sound smarter than you actually are when you use them and 2.) they are quite fun and explanatory. With that in mind I’d like to introduce you to Bucephala clangula – aka the Common Goldeneye Duck. We’ll get to the fun explanatory nature of that name in a moment.
The frozen waters of the River Raisin open up along several stretches along its route. A short riffle section running through the downtown section, just ahead of the Monroe Street Bridge, serves as a major gathering area for the local waterfowl. On some days this gathering consists of what appears to be every Mallard in the western hemisphere but on others it holds a nice little selection of divers such as Redheads, Hooded Mergansers, Bluebills, and Goldeneyes.
The diving ducks take advantage of the open water to bob under the surface for tasty crustaceans, aquatic insects, and pill clams picked out from the bottom gravel. This year, the Redheads and Goldeneyes are the dominant species. The Goldeneyes have attracted most of my recent attention because they are elusive flighty birds. They are hard to approach in the wild. Those occupied bucking the current and feeding on the River Raisin will put up with your presence long enough to allow for some quality observation time. It is almost as if they are on a duck treadmill of sorts and they have to constantly swim in order to hover over a particularly productive spot in the river.

Common Goldeneye Drake photo IMG_7436_zps1e6ebef6.jpg

Male Common Goldeneyes (I have to keep saying “common” because there is another species called the Barrow’s Goldeneye and I’d hate to confuse anyone more than I normally do) are distinctive in coloration. Actually they display very little true color, but are startling examples of contrasting pattern. The sides and belly are white, the back black, and the sides exhibit a pleasing zebra stripe design. The most obvious feature, however, is their enormous dark green head equipped with a bright yellow eye and a large white eye spot located betwixt the eye and bill.
Like most puffy-headed diving ducks, the head appears much larger than it actually is due to the feathering. Perched atop a slender white neck the heady Goldeneye looks the part of a living bobble head figurine. It should be obvious where the goldeneye name came from but the head is the key to the scientific name Bucephals clangula. Translated from the original Greek the name literally means “Screaming OxHead.”

 photo IMG_7456_zpsb09aa090.jpg

In other words, Bucephala, the “Ox Head” portion, refers to the Greecian way to say big headed. Alexander the Great had a beloved battle horse called Bucephalus so named because of its large head with large eyes. Goldeneyes have large heads. The species name “clangula” is a bit more problematical. This means “screaming” but could be interpreted as “to make an attention getting noise.” Goldeneyes do not scream, and are not loud by any stretch of the imagination, but they do whistle. In this context the name makes sense.

Common Goldeneye Pair photo IMG_7417_zps9487b815.jpg

Common Goldeneyes are often referred to as Whistlers by duck hunters. Unlike Lauren Bacall these birds can’t put their lips together and blow, but instead create this noise with their wings as they fly. The rush of air through their rapidly beating primary feathers generates a pulsing whistle that can be heard from a great distance. This advance warning noise gives you just enough time to pull your thoughts together and declare “Look, there be a flock of Screaming Ox-heads approaching yonder.” On the water the birds limit themselves to quiet grunts and splashing dives and no such declaration should be made (especially if no one is in ear-shot).

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It would be wrong of me to end this account without acknowledging the females of the species. That would be Pig-headed of me. The hens have an attraction all their own. Their largish heads tend toward a cinnamon brown color and their eyes are hued with a duller shade of yellow (thus they do not look as continually surprised as the males). With mottled gray backs, white bellies, and yellow tipped bills the smaller females do not scream for visual attention. Yet are worthy of a portrait. You’d almost certainly have to call any such painting of a hen Goldeneye “Whistler’s Mother.” Well, at least I would.

Common Goldeneye female photo IMG_7457_zpsdd1410e8.jpg

January 10, 2015

One Pic Post: Cold Spell

Filed under: Animals,BlogsMonroe — wykes @ 1:00 pm
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The winter temperatures have been hovering around the zero mark for the last few days. It’s been a mild season up to now so this first Arctic blast has seemed more brutal than usual. While we humans spent our time complaining about it, the animal world took it in mute stride. Of course, animals have no choice other than to deal with it. For active warm-blooded beasts, thermoregulation is the key. External warmth gained through cuddling or southern exposure enhances the ability to keep the body core temperature within safe limits.
I had to admire the thermoregulatory antics of a gang of Starlings hanging around a NAPA auto store on a 4 degree (F) day. The birds were soaking up what they could of the morning sun and assembling along the south-east facing wall. The only good perch was provided by the large plastic “Auto Part” letters.
True to their colonial nature, they were constantly shifting position to allow their fellow birds a place in the sun. Starlings do not have any self-spacing mechanisms so they happily crammed their puffy frames into minimal spaces allowed. The top of the “A” provided the least space while the con-joined “RTS” could accommodate up to a dozen fowl at a time. Taking a “P” took on a whole new meaning in this context.
This location was soon rendered nil as the low angled sun crept westward and caused the eaves to cast a warmth-robbing shadow over the spot. For a few moments, however, these hardy little birds were using their collective wit to avoid freezing their A’s off!

December 20, 2014

Bullets and Bagworms

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:30 pm
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The Christmas season has gotten me in the mood to talk about things hanging on trees. Un-natural tree ornaments abound in the form of Christmas tree decorations inside and gaudy light creations draped on yard trees outside. We don’t do the yard light thing at our place, but we do tend to put quite a few atypical ornaments on our Christmas tree. I am constantly reminded on how unusual some of them are. For those raised within the low oxygen atmosphere of our family they make perfect sense but for those “outside” this tradition they invoke odd questions. For instance, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t have a few squirrel chewed walnuts or miniature muskrat skinning boards (decorated as Santa) hanging on their tree.
This year, my son-in-law had the audacity to ask my why we had a badminton birdie as an ornament. My silent reaction was one of slight shock – as in “and you ask this why?” Fortunately I recovered in time to explain that, first of all, this was a vintage badminton birdie of the type that used real chicken feathers as opposed to the modern plastic fringed examples, but seeing that was equally inexplicable I went on to explain that it looked like a shooting star – or the Star of Bethlehem. That worked.
In nature, ornaments of all types are evident. Like the birdie they require some explanation to achieve appreciation. Oak Bullet Galls and Bagworm cases are two good examples.
Rough Bullet Galls are the creations of a tiny big-butted wasp labeled with the tongue-twisting name of Disholcaspis quercusmamma (a species name literally meaning “oak tits”). They afflict Burr Oak Trees. The galls are clustered, woody, and acorn-like with pointed tips. Some trees are covered with these structures and retain them for years. Most of the winter galls are punctured by a neat little hole indicating that the adult insects have successfully pupated and emerged.

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The simple version of the gall wasp story is that they chew their way out in October or November, seek out the winter buds, and lay their eggs on them. The larvae emerge the following spring and their activity stimulates the tree to form a new gall which grows larger over the course of the summer. The more detailed version of the story is slightly odder. Wasps emerging in the fall are all female. These gals produce their eggs without the benefit of male intervention (a horrid thought if you are a male reader).
The final details of this story have only recently been uncovered by researchers. Apparently they’ve discovered an alternate generation in which both males and females are produced. These sexual forms issue from little galls, mate, and proceed to lay their eggs in the usual fashion. So, you see, Oak Tit galls offer much more than their initial appearance would suggest.
Bagworms offer yet another ornament with a story. Winter bagworm bags fall into two categories: empty ones, with pupa casings sticking out, and those containing egg clusters. I present a single example here which I can confidently say was built by a male Bagworm. The bag itself was constructed out of cedar scales by the developing larva as it fed upon the leaves and this structure served as a mobile retreat until late last summer. At that point the creature secured the thing to a branch with stout silk lashings, reversed direction to face downward, and split its skin to form a pupa.

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Look carefully at the lower end of this bag and you’ll see the empty skin of the old pupae sticking out. The resident emerged sometime in September or Early October and sought out a female.
Female bagworms never leave their bag immediately after pupation due to the fact that they are wingless. In fact, they are among the ugliest of natural females with no eyes, no working legs, and no functional mouthparts. Grub like and pale, they have an odd fringe of glossy “fur” around the terminus of their ample bottom which adds absolutely nothing to their appeal. Male Bagworms locate the females and mate with them through the opening at the bottom of the bag. They never actually see their mates and this is probably for the betterment of bagworm fertility (no jokes about bag ladies here). The impregnated female eventually lays her load of eggs inside the bag and dies. Usually she crawls out and drops to ground to complete her unglamorous life.
Two natural ornaments, two fascinating life stories that would make even an antique badminton birdie blush.
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