Posts Tagged ‘postaday2011’

Whisky Jacks


Friday, November 11th, 2011
Gray Jay

Gray Jay

There is no such thing as Indian Summer at eleven thousand feet. There is life and then, with the storms, there is the long, long sleep from which a few warm days can neither revive nor rescue. The sun is shining brightly but the breeze, when it blows, has teeth. There are a few holes in the snow blanketing the ground, but the next storm will mend these and the earth beneath will slumber, shrouded in ice, until June. During the few warm months montane birds abound, but they now are mostly gone. The year-long residents remain. An American Three-toed Woodpecker drums on a nearby spruce. Mountain Chickadees squabble in the vicinity. A Common Raven flies overhead while Clark’s Nutcrackers call in the distance. I sit atop a picnic table beneath an azure sky, bundled in down, relishing the bits of life that remain, like sitting with a dying friend as he gasps his few last words.

There is a rustle in a nearby fir. I am being watched. Carefully, moving as little as possible, I nonchalantly flick a few cashews to the ground at my feet. It does not take long. A blur darts out of the tree as a gray jay descends upon the nuts. I watch it pack one, then two, and finally three cashews in its mouth. It cannot completely close its bill but it flies determinedly away. It soon returns, with friends, and as I continue to toss nuts and pieces of cracker to the ground I find myself in the midst of a group of nine or so of the brazen beggars. Gray Jays are well known, and deservedly so,  for their unabashed audacity. For over a century the birds have been denominated in both the avian and popular literature as “camp robbers,” “meat birds,” “grease birds,” “meat hawks,” “moose birds,” “lumber jacks,” and “venison hawks.” To an unknown tribe of Native Americans they were “wis-ka-tjon,” which was anglicized to “Whisky John” and later corrupted to “Whisky Jack.”

This reputation is well deserved. I have watched their kleptomania in the past and today is no different. I do not throw my offerings fast enough to the ground to keep the birds happy and they manifest their annoyance. On three occasions as I am looking one way, a gray jay comes from my blindside, flies straight at my head, and brushes me with its feathers as it passes. Their boldness emboldens me. I stop throwing nuts to the ground, pour several in my hand, and rest it on the table top.  The assaulters pause briefly and then one glides to the table’s edge, hops across to my hand, takes two nuts, and flies unhurriedly away. A second bird quickly replaces it at the edge. Hopping across to my hand, it briefly scorns the nuts. Instead, it bites down impertinently on my finger, tugging several times before it relents and settles for cashews. The experience is surprising, not painful. And yet, I am not surprised in the least. The ability to thrive in this beautiful but hostile place is not simply a function of physical adaptation, but a matter of moxy as well.



Thursday, November 10th, 2011
Jasper Columbine

Jasper Columbine


Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

If I had to pick a favorite wildflower, it would be Columbine, but if I had to narrow it to only one species of Columbine, deciding which one among the 50 or so that exist in the world would be impossible. They are all so beautiful! I came across this variety a number of times during the backpacking trip near Banff, Alberta that I’ve written about several times now.

Columbine are members of the buttercup family and are closely related to earlier blooming anemones. While only the red and yellow Aquilegia canadensis, a hummingbird attractor, lives in the East. About a dozen grow in the Rocky Mountains. One of the western species, the lilac and white variety, is called Rocky Mountain Columbine (A. caerules). It is Colorado’s state flower.

Columbine has had a past as colorful as its many varieties. It was once nominated as our national flower, but was disqualified because of an old tradition in which a man is supposed to give his wife a bouquet of columbine if he is unfaithful. It was also mixed into a lotion that was used to treat sore throats. Taking a couple of Columbine seeds with a glass of wine was supposed to speed up childbirth. Some Native Americans ate the roots and brewed a tea from its seeds to cure a fever. The Meskwaki Indians in Iowa used its seeds in love potion. While I don’t buy Columbine’s ability to work as an aphrodisiac, I have fallen in love with this uniquely shaped flower that grows in rugged terrain and comes in so many colors. In addition to this yellow and crimson clump, I’ve seen two-tone yellow, pure white, white and yellow, red and yellow, pink, blue, and purple and white ones. Each seems so delicately form, so lovely and demure with their nectar-filled lobes sitting like a tall crown on top of their bowed heads.

Owls Among Us


Wednesday, November 9th, 2011
Snowy Owl In Flight

Snowy Owl In Flight


As the days are getting shorter, the mornings cooler and fall approaches, it will soon give way to snowfall in the Midwest.  The cold and wintery days in the Upper Peninsula mean one thing for us; winter finches, Grouse and most importantly, owls!

Why is winter better for owls in the Midwest?  It’s not necessarily about the classic Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls, or even the Northern Saw-Whet Owls.  When thinking of winter in the Upper Peninsula, for me it’s about Snowy Owls, Northern Hawk Owls, and the especially rare Great Gray Owl.  These 3 species of Owl will sometimes make their way slightly south and find themselves setting up shop for the winter in specific areas around the Upper Peninsula.  Above that, all three of these owls are mostly diurnal (meaning they actively hunt during the day).  This makes things much easier!  Snowy Owls tend to be in wide open flat areas while the Northern Hawk Owl prefers a few more trees with some open land around.  The tougher Great Gray Owl likes more forested areas with open hunting areas close by.  I haven’t met any new bird-watcher who didn’t want to see an owl.  These northern areas can be an easy way of claiming the bold experience of getting a “lifer” owl.

Aside from owls, there are also other birds such as Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings that can be found which make for quite a diverse list.  Winter doesn’t have to only be about the many Cardinals and Blue Jays at our feeders.  With a little knowhow and some searching, there are actually an odd amount of bird species around. By driving north, the Upper Peninsula can be a life-changing place for birding.  Trips such as this can also be an opportunity to frequent locally-owned businesses and have times of camaraderie with others.  If the thought of winter bothers you, think about birding in winter to relieve those days of being inside.  Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

Be a Sport


Friday, November 4th, 2011
White Hackberry

White Hackberry

Plants with variegated leaves are usually found in gardens. But spend enough time in the field, and you might run across some unusual examples in the wild.

In the forest at work, there is a Common Hackberry about ten feet tall, and several limbs have beautiful leaves that are mostly white with green speckles. When I first noticed the tree a few years ago it was a few feet shorter and all the limbs had white leaves. The tree seems to be growing a little bit slower than other hackberries, perhaps handicapped by the diminished amount of chlorophyll fueling its growth. Nonetheless, it is persisting.

Variegated Garlic Mustard

Variegated Garlic Mustard

In an open area in the same forest, I once found a single Garlic Mustard plant with some very attractive variegated leaves. Garlic Mustard is biennial, so I knew this plant would be back in the coming years. I did check to see if any more came up in the same area after that, but I’ve never encountered another Garlic Mustard plant like the first. Just as well. I would hate to see unsuspecting visitors collecting and planting seeds of non-native and outrageously invasive species.

While sometimes due to a virus, intercell mutation, or “jumping genes”, variegation in plants usually occurs due to a cell mutation in one of the three layers in the plant’s bud, or meristem. If the mutation prevents the normal production of green chlorophyll, the cells arising from that layer will be white, or sometimes yellow or some other color if other leaf pigments show through. Plants with variegated leaves are often known as “chimeras” or “sports.” They are valued in the nursery trade, of course. Finding them in nature is even more invaluable!

I Pledge Allegiance to the Foliar Flag


Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011
Luna Moth

Luna Moth


I’m sure there is some bias here but I absolutely love our Nation’s Flag. It’s one of the best flags around and has so many meanings behind what makes up the flag itself. Not all flags are meant to distinguish States or Nations, however. Some flags are used to bring attention to others in a different way. In this case, the “others” would be migrant birds and other animals in search of food before the snow flies.

Contrast between colors is something every living being on the planet uses to discern different items from each other. In its simplest form, contrast is the difference between shades and colors. This is the basic premise behind foliar flags. The general hypothesis behind foliar flags is the early color contrast between berries and foliage is timely in such a way to attract birds and other animals to feed. They then spread seeds as they drop scat (containing the seeds) in other areas. In early fall, as berries ripen they contrast very heavily with what’s in the background. This bold color difference acts as a spot light or “flag” to bring birds and animals in to feed. A perfect example of a foliar flag is the Flowering Dogwood Tree. In early fall, its ripened berries turn a vibrant red which contrasts with the still green leaves. Another example would be the Staghorn Sumac that doesn’t necessarily have berries, but an edible fruit that migrants are attracted to. The foliar flag for this species is its brightly colored red leaves in early fall. These insanely bright leaves can bring in even the highest flying migrant as well as other species in the area.

Nature seems to have done everything first (maybe with the exception of the amazing iPhone!) Nature’s foliar flags are in many ways used for reasons that can relate to why humans use flags. Whether it’s a Country’s flag or a non-official flag that calls attention to the masses for other reasons, it’s all about grabbing attention. Nature is able to use something as simple as contrast to trigger species to come near and spread seeds so that plants can continue spreading and surviving. Awesome!

Spirit of the Sand – The Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata)


Monday, October 31st, 2011
Ghost Crab

Ghost Crab

In mid-dark hours under a starlit sky
Porcelain apparitions flirt at edge of sight
Spirits of the dead that poke and pry
Rotten flesh-eating ghosts that haunt the night

Fallen sea stars crash to shore
An aquatic wish, a wish no more
Scallops and whelks ground into sand
A coastal cemetery where gulf grazes land

Midnight monsters rise from sandy grave
A four foot burrow and a daytime shade
“Fast of foot” Ocypode glides
Seeking beach line bounty of nightly tides

Scavengers of sorrow sift skeletal remains
Washed ashore by unforgiving waves
Bones and shells now picked clean
Are left on beach as tombstone memory

Coquina Clams and Mole Crabs beware
Dead or undead the ghouls won’t care
They hunt and feed and disappear
Underground to their shell cave lair

As sun arcs high up overhead
Predators hunt the haunted sand
Few ghosts emerge in fear as well
That they’d be rendered down to shell

Yet large stalked eyes help to see
While four paired legs aid well to flee
And one large claw is meant to scare
It’s hard to catch one unaware

But do not fear
The beast of the coast
After all
It’s just a ghost.

Frass Baskets


Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

My research centers around urban ecosystems and invasive species. Typically, this means birds and non-native fruit, but I’ve done a fair amount of insect work and am always on the lookout for intriguing, exotic urban bugs. A few years ago, at a meeting of the Michigan Entomological Society, I saw a presentation about a moth introduced to North America around 2002. It’s been estimated that nearly 100 species of moths have been introduced on this continent from Great Britain alone. This particular moth, the Greenish-Yellow Sitochroa Moth, Sitochroa palealis, is also native to Great Britain, and its range extends to eastern Russia and south into North Africa; there are also records from the Far East.

Although my mind went a little numb listening to the details of the adult moth’s genitalia structure, I perked up when I heard that the larvae have a distinctive lifestyle. They feed on the flowers and seed heads of plants in the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) family. In North America, the dominant host is Daucus carota, Queen Anne’s Lace, one of the most familiar non-native wildflowers in the U.S. This feeding habit accounts for the insect’s other common name, the Carrot Seed Moth.

The presenter at the meeting told us to look for larvae of Sitochroa palealis in the cup-shaped seed heads of Queen Anne’s Lace, as the moth was established in Michigan, as well as Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. I spent the next two years peering into hundreds of seed heads, to no avail.

Eventually, my interest in finding the caterpillars waned, although I still looked at Queen Anne’s Lace seed heads out of force of habit. Last summer, I was walking through an old brownfield site along the Detroit River when I noticed a pile of frass – insect poop – in a seed head. I peeked inside, and there it was: a fat, speckled Sitochroa palealis larva. In fact, nearly every nearby Queen Anne’s Lace seed head acted as a basket of frass produced by a resident caterpillar. Often the caterpillar was hidden, but the frass was very conspicuous.

I never noticed any Sitochroa palealis adults at that site, but within a month I did photograph a rather boring-looking diurnal moth nectaring on Culver’s Root in my garden. It turned out to be the Carrot Seed Moth. It was quite fresh, and while I didn’t find any larvae in the neighborhood Queen Anne’s Lace, I now know what to look for.

And you do, too. In late summer, look for frass-holding Queen Anne’s Lace seed heads in the upper Midwest. In addition to the four states mentioned above, I’ve seen photos from Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Ontario. The Carrot Seed Moth could be coming to an old field near you!

Willet stay? Willet go?


Monday, August 29th, 2011

Willets are seemingly inconspicuous shorebirds that are easily ignored by the general beach going populace. Chances are if you’ve seen a wedding photo on the beach there is probably a Willet skirting the shoreline behind the bride and groom.

Willets (Tringa semipalmata) are often the bird that some kid on the beach is throwing shells at because the bird ignored the bread thrown at it. (Don’t do it kids, especially if my sister is around. She will throw shells back at you.) Willets have more class than to beg like gulls. Come on kids. They eat tube worms, aquatic insects, mollusks and fish.

To most people a Willet is just a drab-colored shorebird, but when it takes flight it has a striking and very obvious white and black color pattern on the underwing that makes identifying and enjoying a bit easier. The pattern isn’t just for our benefit, a flash of wing helps Willets indentify each other from other shorebird species. The preening Willet in the photo is showing a bit of the black and white in the lower right block.

Willets are monogamous during the breeding season. They split time between the Atlantic coast of South America and the east and west coasts of North America. While they grace our beaches, the males and females tend to nest in the vegetation near the shore. The nest is a well-hidden/conspicuous nest which is to say the nest itself is hidden among the reeds and grasses while a tunnel to the nest is more obvious.

The onomatopoetic name Willet is just one of the various calls the bird makes. It sounds very much like the soothing white-noise “ocean” sounds on my baby’s mobile. Will Will Willet. Will Will Willet.

Males help incubate the eggs and feed the young. Despite their mate fidelity, the females take off two weeks before the chicks fledge, leaving the last of the rearing to the male. I don’t know why this is, but with my own 6 month old at home, the thought of it makes me nervous.

Atlantis Fritillary


Friday, August 12th, 2011

Location: Errol, New Hampshire
The approach to the rustic two-room cabin in a remote area of northern New Hampshire required crossing the Dead Diamond River then traversing a meadow of wild flowers. All seemed quiet and peaceful at first blush as I lugged my gear toward the small log structure on a knob above the river. I looked forward to a three-day retreat from the electronic world. Though I was 15 miles from the nearest town, off the grid, my haven in the Great North Woods was more populated than I thought, not by people, but by Atlantis fritillary butterflies (Speyeria atlantis).
The meadow by the cabin was a pink sea of milkweed blossoms. Upon closer inspection, I could see orange and black beauties flitting busily from cluster to cluster, frantically dabbing their probosci into each tiny flower like a kid with a free pass to a candy store. Judging by their intense feeding frenzy, milkweed must be a sweet treat indeed to Atlantis fritillaries.
When a butterfly senses food with its front legs, it reflexively unrolls its proboscis which it uses like a straw to suck up nectar. Atlantis fritillaries love common milkweed, as well as mints, laurels, crown vetch, daisies and spirea. These wildflowers love them, too, depending on butterflies (and bees) to transfer pollen from blossom to blossom. It’s impossible for a butterfly to avoid getting dusted with pollen as they poke into each flower.
Atlantis fritillaries pollinate a lot of flowers. They range from southern Canada to West Virginia and as far west as the Front Range of the Rockies, winging around meadows, pastures and bogs. The ones in the meadow by the cabin seemed oblivious to my presence, concerned only with gorging themselves on milkweed nectar. I was happy for the chance to watch them.



Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Location: Chateaugay Lake, Adirondack Park, NY
Each year around the summer solstice, I return to my cottage on Chateaugay Lake in the northern Adirondack Park. And each year, when I walk onto the deck the first morning, coffee steaming in my favorite mug, a mother mallard and her young brood swim to my little strand of sand welcoming me back.
Momma mallard has a tough time keeping her dozen offspring corralled. The curious yellow fluffballs swim here and there around the fingers of lake grass a dozen feet from the shoreline. One little fellow follows a waterbug a few feet away from the pack, realizes he has strayed, then skitters across the water back to the brood. I counted a dozen three-day-old ducklings this year, which is within the norm (8 to 13 ducks) for a nest of mallards.
Baby ducks can swim as soon as they hatch. They’re curious about their world, but imprinting on their mother hen keeps them close to her for warmth and life’s lessons, but mom can only protect her big brood to a certain point. And father Mallard is rarely in attendance. After the mating season in early spring, dad abandons his mate to either sire more eggs or hang out with his fellow green heads, leaving mom to raise the kids.
I think a dozen ducklings is more than a mother duck can handle. Each morning, the mallard family swims past my beach, diving for food and poking around on the sand and grass as they cruise the shoreline. And each morning I instinctively count them. At two weeks old, the family is now only six little ones. The others have become sustenance for the larger bass or pike in the lake and the wily red fox that slinks onto my beach now and again after dark. The mother in me feels twinges of grief for the mother duck’s loss, but the naturalist in me knows this is the way of the animal kingdom. I wonder if she misses her young that have succumbed early or if she simply focuses on the ducklings that are left.