A Royal Chrysalis July 16, 2012
For those who were paying attention in grade school, you should recall that butterflies go through four different life stages – egg, larvae, pupa, and adult. For those of you who weren’t paying attention, let it be said that butterflies go through four different life stages – egg, larvae, pupa, and adult. Now that we are all on the same page, let’s zero in on that third life stage, the pupal stage. No, we don’t mean the pupil stage – which is the stage at which you should have been paying attention in school – but the state of being where the caterpillar sheds his skin and turns into a semi-mobile form known as a pupa. It is within the confines of this strange looking skin that the leaf eating beast magically transforms into a winged adult.
For some reason, a butterfly pupa is called a chrysalis. This decision was made long ago in order to confuse pupils and to provide an extra credit question on tests. The name refers to the “crystalline,” or beautiful, nature of these structures but not all chrysalises are beautiful. It is by means of this lengthy introduction that we would like to show you the strangely beautiful, yet slightly crappy, chrysalis of a Viceroy butterfly. This one was attached to the back of one of our trail signs.
Adult Viceroy butterflies are better known as mimics of the black and orange Monarch butterfly. They have a royal name but it only covers up the lowly truth of the rest of their life cycle. As a larva and chrysalis, Viceroys are best known as imitators of bird poo. You will note the shimmering poo-like nature of this chrysalis. It is suspended from a silk button and hangs down like a freshly deposited dropping. As if to add to their odd nature, Viceroy pupae are also endowed with a wedge-shaped hump on the back – a touch which just makes them look uglier.
Why look like poo? Well, since birds do not make a habit of eating their own poo it is unlikely that they would eat a poo-ish chrysalis. It is great camouflage. Apparently this particular chrysalis benefited from this disgusting disguise and did eventually emerge. All that remained as of this writing was a fragment of hollow skin (see below) to mark where royalty rose from humble beginnings.
Hammering the Ant Hills July 5, 2012
A local pair of Flickers (aka Yellow Hammers) have been “anting” the museum yard lately and can be seen on the same spot on a daily basis. Even though they are woodpeckers – and hefty ones at that – Flickers spend much of their time on the ground seeking ants. These birds eat the things with relish. According to the literature they eat more ants than any other North American bird and nearly half of their diet is of the ant-kind.
We think you’ll agree that is an un-likely occupation for a bird built for carpentry but, oddly enough, they are up for the task. Equipped with a strong pointed bill and a long extendable tongue, they can probe wood or soil tunnels with equal skill. Our flickers will peck away at the site of an ant hill, expose the inner galleries, extend their barbed tongues into the tunnels and lap up the scurrying ants. The female is pictured in these photos. Both sexes have a bright red crescent on the back of their heads, but the she-peck lacks the black mustache mark found on the he-pecks – no kidding).
Like all woodpeckers, the base of their tongue actually extends around the back of the head and over the top of the skull to an attachment point within one of the nostrils. Yes, you read that part correctly. So, extending the tongue well past the bill tip is no problem. The birds probably swallow more than their share of soil in the process but as there is no such thing as a “two second” rule among birds, this is apparently no problem.
Mass Munchers June 27, 2012
A fuzzy white mass in the leaves hanging over the Trapper’s Run Trail created a point of interest the other day. The end leaves of a Black Walnut bough were covered with dozens of moth caterpillars doing their level best to demolish them. The creatures were mostly white and covered with black freckles. A light coating of fine hair outlined them in the morning sun. We’re not sure if you’d call ‘em cute, but they are the newly hatched babies of a moth called the Hickory Tiger Moth.
For the first week after hatching, these larvae stick together as a group. They feed together, poo together, and shed their skins together like a happy family. Soon the individuals wander apart and eventually complete their larval life on their own (you know, finding their own space and all that). By the time they weave their cocoon in mid-summer they will have achieved a dense coating of “hair” (setae) and take on the appearance of a toothbrush.
For now, however, the gang presents a fascinating scene of mass munching. In case you are wondering why a critter called a Hickory Tiger Moth would be eating Walnut leaves, the name is somewhat misleading. They will feast on any variety of nut trees and even ash, maple, and oak for good measure. As HickoryWalnutOakMapleAsh Tiger Moth would be a mouthful, it is simpler and safer to call them Hickory Tigers and let them choose what they put into their communal mouths.
Look Timmy, it’s a Cat-tail! June 17, 2012
If you are the logical sort, you might have had a hard time figuring out why Cat-tail plants are called Cat-tail plants. For most of the time they look like a hot dog on a stick- or a corn dog to be precise They don’t really look like a cat’s rear appendage at all. It would have been better to call them “Corn Dog” plants and save years of confused and anguished conversations such as:
“Look Timmy, this is a cat-tail plant.”
“It doesn’t look like a cat’s tail at all. It’s a Corn dog plant.”
“Well, I didn’t name it but you are right. It probably should have been called a Corn Dog plant. We can’t change the name now.”
“Why not? If it doesn’t look like a cat’s tail then why call it that?”
“Because that would be illegal to change it now. We might go to jail if we did.”
“Yes, Timmy, and all they have to eat in jail are corn dogs…”
So, hopefully you get the idea. The next time you show Timmy a Cat-tail plant you can tell him that it is called a Cat-tail because during a brief two week period in early summer the plant produces a flower that really does look like a cat’s tail. During this brief time there are two “corn dogs” on each plant. The top one is the male flower and the bottom one is the female flower. The male flower eventually produces a cloud of pollen, withers, and then falls off. This leaves the female flower to develop into that “corn dog-like” structure full of fluff and seeds.
That special flowering time of year is right now. Take Timmy out and show him a cat-tail plant and point out the cat’s tail curling off the top. This will end years of potential confusion and the telling of small white lies.
Deer Due Date June 5, 2012
It’s that time of year – late May/early June -when the local White-tailed Deer have their fawns. In usual parlance, it is said that the doe “drops” her fawn. Although this may sounds rather drastic and hap-hazard, it simply means that she places here delicate cargo in the tall weeds and leaves it there for an extended time. The original plan, as recorded in the Ancient book of Instinct, is for the newborn to stay put while mom is away. Not all the fawns have an equal understanding of this instinctual text.
One such non-compliant fawn was found walking across Gibraltar Road just north of the park. It was a brand new deer with a small portion of umbilical cord still intact. When one of our park police passed by the critter, she attempted to shuttle it off the road. Unfortunately, the fawn decided to recall another passage of instinctive protocol and immediately dropped into a freeze position right there on the edge of the road. Not sure exactly what to do, our officer piled the motionless deer into the passenger seat and took it for a ride to the museum.
To make a long story short, the petite creature was provided with another ride back to its point of origin, walked back into the nearby brush, and “dropped” gently back into position. The blue-eyed creature never moved a muscle during the entire trip and allowed itself to be handled like a trusting sack of potatoes. This really shows the power of an instinctive reaction when properly employed.
Even though we never saw her, we are confident mom was nearby and that she returned to her pseudo-orphan and eventually spirited it off to a better hiding location. The next time we see this individual she will be brown-eyed and probably mooching food from passing park visitors!
Nests of Note May 30, 2012
We have two nests to present to you during this peak of the season. One is a “normal” and the other is not.
The normal one– at least by all definitions of normal – is a Red-winged Blackbird nest tucked away in a cluster of cat-tail stems. As per the species stylebook , this nest is carefully woven of strips of dead cat-tail leaves and lined with fine grasses. The baby blue eggs are decorated with an artsy variety of blotches and squiggles. Even though Red-wings are exceedingly common their nest and eggs are not often seen because they are usually built over water. This particular nest is in a fairly accessible location although the birds were doing everything in their power to make them in-accessible (in other words they were dive bombing the photographer).
The other nest was made by a pair of Tree Swallows. The birds themselves looked normal enough but their chosen location is not normal. They selected one of the boat trailers parked at the marina lot. The only thing that keeps this nest from becoming a mobile home is the fact that their trailer is in the long-term parking lot.
Tree Swallows are cavity nesters and they usually select old woodpecker holes or Bluebird houses (or are they Tree Swallow Houses?). The choice of an open-ended angled metal tube as a nest site is an odd one because it is not well protected from the weather. The female bird of this pair is a first year bird (as evidenced by her brownish coloration) so it is possible that her decision making process was clouded by youth. The bright greenish blue male is sticking by her, however.
Up until the time of this posting the nest is still going strong. It is suitably lined with duck and heron feathers and the female is incubating a clutch of at least 3 fragile white eggs. Perhaps a trailer park is the way to go for some Swallows.
Garpike Procreation May 17, 2012
While lowering our heads to relieve “warbler neck” during a recent bird walk, we spotted some spawning Longnose Gar in Wyman’s Canal. Gar- aka “Garpike” to the locals – are common residents of the shallows and marshes of Lake Erie. We have several individuals on display in our Great Lakes tank at the museum where they can be seen all day/every day. Fishermen classify them as trash fish because they are better at catching fish than they are. All common and negative impressions aside, they are incredibly primitive and successful fish well worth a closer look.
Our look was from a bird’s eye view while perched on the deck over the canal waters. A large female was surrounded by at least four courting males. The fellows followed her every turn and sway so closely that they appeared to be stuck there by glue (fish glue, no doubt). All of them were clinging to the hope that they would be present at the exact moment the larger female decides to lay her eggs. When she does release her load, they would fertilize them as they are laid on the aquatic vegetation.
As per the usual plan for such events, the cluster of amorous fish swam around and through the beds of water plants. After a short period of this activity, the female then paused for a moment and began to wiggle. The whole batch of fish began to wiggle. Although we couldn’t see this part from our vantage point, she was laying her eggs and the attending males were struggling to fertilize them. the activity died down as quickly as it began and the gar cluster resumed their slow deliberate circle swim. Feeling slightly voyeuristic, we humans then backed away and resumed our bird search.
Because a typical female Longnose Gar can lay anywhere from 1,000-75,000 eggs per season, you can bet that this bunch’o spawning gar repeated their performance many more times before the day ended.
Little Woodies May 7, 2012
We are not an animal shelter – nor do we play one on T.V. This doesn’t stop folks from stopping in with all sorts of baby critters this time of year. These well-intentioned sorts are easily identified by the presence of a hand-held cardboard box, usually covered with a blanket, or a wire cage (also covered with a blanket). The adult is usually accompanied by one or two doe-eyed children. For some reason, there is usually lots of grass inside the box (and bread pieces!). Apparently there is a general belief that all animals need to be surrounded with grass and white bread.
It is our job to identify and quickly divert these creatures to their proper place. In most cases this means informing the temporary care-takers that that their charges need to be immediately returned to where they were found. It is also our job to make sure that the doe-eyed children don’t become teary-eyed when they find out the harsh realities about “bird-bird” and how we need to let nature take its course etc. etc.
When three little Wood Ducks recently walked into the building, they were cradled in a basket rather than a cardboard bag. No grass or bread was in evidence, but there was a blanket over them. The “finders” were a mom and her late-teenish daughter and they explained how they found these little Mallards in a field. In this case, were able to inform them that the ducklings were Wood Ducks. They had just jumped from a tree hole nest somewhere and were in the process of making their way to water. Three does not a Wood duckling brood make, so it is likely this trio got separated from the hen and the rest of the gang. The humans were told to bring them back quickly because mom duck would be looking.
Unfortunately, the humans went on to say that they were actually found “a few days ago” and that they were being fed during this time. The little ducks had learned to follow them around and to cuddle with the family dog. In other words, the ducklings had imprinted on their new human and canine parents and it was too late for any quick return to the wild. Fortunately, this mom/daughter team were familiar with raising ducks and had done it in the past. They grimaced at the idea of having to complete this particular task themselves, but also understood that there was now no other good option. The Mrs., Miss, and their three downy “children” left the museum on their way to adventure.
Polyphemus Anew April 26, 2012
Polyphemus is the giant cyclopean son of Poseidon according to the tangled yarns of Greek mythology. Some of you Homer-philes might remember the tale of Odysseus and how he blinded Polyphemus in order to help his men make their escape from his cave. Good stuff – fake as all get out, but good none-the-less. We enjoyed the company of a real Polyphemus this week, although not exactly of the monstrous kind.
Our “Greecian” guest was a Polyphemus moth. One of the members of the giant silk moth family, these incredible night flyers have large fuzzy bodies and 6 inch wingspans. With their brown subtle tones these moths look almost mammal-like (their bodies are larger than some shrew species!). We would say that the big eye spot on each lower wing is the reason these things were named after that nasty one-eyed sheep-herder, but given the fact that they actually have two eye spots we are forced to let that one drop and move on, lest we get too confused.
This particular individual came to us as a cocoon collected this past winter along one of our trails (see above). We kept her in a cool place and it emerged a few days ago -slightly ahead of schedule, but that’s o.k.
It is proper to call her a “her” because she is…a… her. Although this may sound disrespectful, her plump looks gave her away. In the moth world it is good to be a fat female because that means she is full of eggs. Another female trait is the pair of fairly narrow feathery antennae. Male Polyphemus Moths have huge feathery antennae and they are skinny by comparison. But, ike the gals, they also have the two one-eyed spots on their wings.
Little Big Fish April 20, 2012
Fish & Wildlife biologist Justin Chiotte came to the museum to present an update of their Lake Sturgeon work on the Detroit River. He brought along the usual PowerPoint with pictures of giant fish captured as part of the research. He even brought along samples of the different scientific implements used to tag the ancient beasts – such as a tiny signal-emitting “PIT” tag, a plastic “FLOY” fin tag, and a large black cylinder about the size of a AA battery that is surgically inserted into the body cavity. He did a great job and all attending were impressed. But we all had to admit (even Justin) that the singular most fascinating part of his program were the live sturgeon he brought along for display. There’s nothing like live stuff to drive home a point.
Granted, Justin’s fish were tiny by Sturgeon standards. Because they grow throughout their life and they can live well over a century, mature fish can be over 8 feet in length and weight nearly 300 pounds. A typical river fish – a youngster merely 30 years of age - might be 5 feet long and 60 pounds. Justin’s transportable menagerie consisted of two one year olds. These tiny fellows are perfect miniatures of the adults.
Even though the two fish were the same age class, one was a runt at only 6 inches while the other was more typical for his age at 10 inches in length (perhaps someone wasn’t eating his Wheaties). Apart from constantly purring “oooh, how cute” there were several features worth noting for those of us in attendance. First and foremost was that flat sturgeon nose equipped with four sensory barbels or whiskers. They feed along the bottom and drag those whiskers over the sediment in order sense their food (invertebrates mostly). They suck up the targeted prey with an extendible mouth. Each fish is equipped with 5 rows of hooked bony plates for protection. Their shark-like tail should also be pointed out.
Oddly enough, one of the most fascinating features found on a sturgeon (of any age) are the nostrils! Yes, they have a set of pores positioned ahead of the eyes and each opening is divided into two parts. The internal structure looks something like a flower. Take a look here at this nose picture and we think you’ll be as fascinated as we were (we suppose you could say a “nose pic” but that would not come out right). Sure the rest was amazing, but what a nostril!
Tiny Easter Eggs April 7, 2012
Saturday, April 7 was Easter Egg Scramble Day. This event, just case you don’t know, is where we assemble 100 some kids and their parents and cut them loose in the tot lot for an Easter egg hunt. The Easter Muskrat is also involved in this event, but we needn’t bother you with the specific details. Our point here is to say that there were exactly 1,502 eggs in that tot lot at the beginning of the day and that we placed exactly 1,500 of those. The other two were in a Mourning Dove nest located in a spruce tree right in the middle of the site. Mourning Doves always lay two eggs, so this is a typical clutch.
After approximately 12.5 minutes the children picked the place clean. Fortunately the two real eggs were still in place after the dust cleared. The attending bird stood his/her ground (both parents incubate) and weathered the storm rather nicely. The chosen nest site was located on a branch about 6 feet off the ground and well out of tot vision.
Just for comparison we thought you’d like to see the difference between a set of Mourning Dove eggs and a plastic Easter Egg. The photo below will give you a good idea. The dove eggs were solid white and slightly over an inch in length while the Easter Egg was closer to 3 inches in length and neatly divided into a pink and an orange half. The Mourning Dove eggs lack the distinctive line that goes around the center of your average Easter Egg. The real eggs will hatch into ugly chicks within 14 days. The Easter Egg hatched right after the photo was taken. It produced a neatly wrapped gummy candy.
Ladybug, Ladybug How Many Spots Have Thee? April 1, 2012
These warm spring days have lured out a host of hibernating insects. Commas, Question Marks, Mourning Cloaks (butterflies all), and Paper Wasps have joined in this seasonal pageant. Ladybugs – or Ladybird Beetles if you please – are among the counted. Most members of this beetle clan are orange with multiple black spots but the number of spots can range from none (hmmmmm) to 20 or so. The morbidly named Twice-stabbed Ladybug takes this spot-madness even further by being jet black with two red spots.
At present, there is hardly a Red Maple tree in the park that doesn’t have at least a few of these black shiny critters crawling about. Like most ladybugs they hibernate in crevices, under leaf litter, or in hollow logs and become active at the first warmth of spring. We are not sure exactly why there is such a tight association of Twice-Stabbed Beetles with Red Maples, but we have a guess. Ladybugs are predators, so it’s not about feeding on the tree buds or leaves, but instead it is about feeding on the other tree pests. Cottony Maple Scales, tiny relatives of the aphid, are known to infest Red Maples and Ladybugs are well known scale eaters. So, there you have it. Twice-stabbed Ladybugs are seeking Cotton Candy.
It is not really worth noting, but it is worth saying that Ladybug spots have long been associated with a whole host of stupid legends. For instance, if a woman sits on one accidently, the number of spots on the squashed bug will indicate the number of children she will bear. There is nothing about age in this particular legend, so we wonder if it possible for a 97 year old to have twins? In truth, the stark red and black pattern on this beetle is a warning to all potential predators that they are nasty tasting. This means that a wandering “bug” can stay alive along as it avoids hind ends and third stabbings.
Explosive Chorus March 23, 2012
There is nothing that can be said about this bout of accelerated warm spring weather that hasn’t already been said (intelligent or otherwise). We can squelch the rumor that the park is planning our Fourth of July celebration on April 1, however. We can also say for sure that the weather has had an explosive effect on our Chorus Frog population. By this we mean that the critters are in hyper mode. Normally they start singing as soon as the sting is out of the late winter air. This they did. They gathered at favorite wet areas and the males began to croak – loudly and persistently. This will normally (there’s that word again) go on for an extended period throughout early spring until their voices and desires give out. Not this year.
In locations such as our small parking lot pond the 2012 chorus session has already played out. The frogs came, they performed, the fat lady sang, and the troupe pulled out of town within a week. This “normally” would have been a month-long engagement. We are not complaining, mind you, only commenting.
Chorus Frog wth body inflated
To be frank, even though the performance was a short one it was magnificent. They did all they would normall…wait, let’s use a different word here…let’s say “expected" ....to do but accomplished it in a much shorter time. Egged on by the endless string of bluebird days, the males were whipped into a frenzy and called non-stop. Each male inhales a huge gulp of air and inflates his tiny oval body into a tiny circular ball (see above). That single bubble of air is then pushed back and forth through the vocal chords from the throat pouch to the lungs in order to generate that distinctive “creeeek, creeeek” call (see below). You can see that see-saw action if you pay close attention.
Chorester with throat fully expanded
Because there are still patches of Chorus Frogs calling in the park we invite you to come out and catch the final acts before that curtain comes crashing down.
Ducks in the Rough March 14, 2012
The water hazards (aka “ponds”) on the Lake Erie Golf course are currently serving another purpose other than gobbling up golf balls. Migrating ducks have been taking up temporary residence in our deep water ponds and providing a late winter opportunity to get a birdie or two on our course. These same birds can be found out on the open waters of the lake but since they are “out on the open waters of the lake” they can be hard to identify as anything other than floating black & white mystery ducks.
Here on the course they are rather up close and personal. This means that one has to sneak up on them but it also means that one can see them a whole lot better if the sneaking has been well performed (that certainly was an oddly worded sentence wasn’t it?). Among the migrants, are tiny Buffleheads, flashy Hooded Mergansers and Redheads, and non-ring necked Ring-necked Ducks. Most of these ducks are paired like perfect salt and pepper sets – male and female pairs. They have bonded and are now making their way north to the breeding grounds.
Perhaps the Ring-necked Ducks are the most peculiar looking of the bunch. These jaunty looking fowl are members of the diving duck clan, which means they dive for plants and invertebrates. The females are dressed in basic brown and the males are decked out in black, white, and glistening shades of purple. Their blue-gray beaks are strikingly marked with a pair of white rings. You’d think they would be called Ring-billed Ducks but they are not. Because they have a faint – near invisible - marroonish neck ring they are called Ring-necked Ducks: Anas collaris. Yes, that is a stupid name but it’s too late to change it now. This species was originally labeled by an English taxonomist Edward Donovan who based his description on a specimen found in London Market in 1809. Donovon is long dead but his legacy lives on in the form of an ill-named bird.
Delight in the Details Feb. 28, 2012
Close up of comb structure
They say that the Devil is in the details, but we’d have to disagree when it comes to the details of a hornet nest. If you give a hornet’s nest a really close look, you will experience delight in the details of construction, form, and design. You must do this observation during the off season, however, for this to be true. Even though such a structure is equally fascinating in mid-summer, the architects and residents will make your experience less than delightful. There would be the Devil to pay in this circumstance. No, the time to experience detailed hornet nest delight (aka DHND) is in the wintertime when the nest is empty and all the hornets are either dead or hibernating elsewhere.
Tier of 9 internal combs
Structural columns between combs - 6 to 30 per level
Because hornet nests are so spectacular, folks pull them down and kindly bring them in to us. Unfortunately, because hornet nests are not rare and we already have several hundred (o.k. two or three) on hand at any given time we often are forced to graciously decline the gift or simply walk it out the back door as the donor is leaving out the front! In fact, you might say that there is the devil in that particular shared detail, but we’d argue that this is honest - not dishonest- behavior. One such nest was walked into the front door earlier in the week, but it was such a striking example that we just had to share it with you (before walking it out the back door). We carefully opened it to remove the inner comb structure.
Structual columns shown reeeeeaaaalllly close
Upper portion of comb
We are referring to those oval grey structures made on the branches of trees or under eaves. You know, the ones that suddenly show up when the leaves fall off. They are constructed by wasps called Bald-faced Hornets (who are apparently known for telling lies). These highly social creatures create suspended breeding combs and cover them with protective layers of home-made paper. As the colony grows, the inner layer is removed and new outer layers are added. It would be a shame to over-interpret all these wonderful details, so we’ll just give you a visual tour, make a few comments and leave it at that. Someone once said that “art explained is not art” but we’re pretty sure that person is either dead or hibernating, so you can chose to find meaning in that phrase – or not.
Outer covering showing arched construction
Outer covering showing individual layers of chewed wood (in other words paper). Each color is a different mouthful laid on by a different worker wasp.
Barking up the Right Tree February 23, 2012
We don’t have many forest type trees at Lake Erie Metropark because we don’t really have any forests. We do have some small woodlots containing a few decent examples of Burr and White Oak, but this is wet territory better known for marshes and water rather than big trees. The Cottonwood is one wetland tree that does attain great size, however, and we can lay claim to many sizable examples.
Whereas an ancient oak or hickory might be hundreds of years old, an equivalent Cottonwood would be closer to a hundred years old. They grow quickly and put on mass via lightweight watery wood. Their life pattern is closer to that of a human – which means they start off as a fat child and start to decline after the half-century mark. Winds, weather, and the ravages of time slowly pull them apart. No amount of exercise or power shakes will change this.
Old cottonwood trees have incredibly thick bark. Perhaps as an insurance against wildfires that will occasionally sweep through marshes, this corky covering can grow to be over 6 inches thick. It is divided into deep furrows and ridges. As the trees begin their journey into senility, huge fragments of this bark peel off and litter the ground around the base. Enterprising woodcarvers have discovered that shed Cottonwood bark makes a great carving material. It is easily whittled, fairly strong, and has great character.
Local carver David Matt recently gifted one of his unique
Cottonwood bark “hobbit” house creations to the museum. He gave it in appreciation for one of our programs. We believe that he was actually thankful that the program ended, but that is another point. Regardless of the reason, Dave has reaffirmed that you can teach old bark some new tricks.
Alder Birds Feb. 12, 2012
Our winter bird population goes up and down depending on the day, the week, the price of wheat in China, and the season. While the likes of Chickadees, Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, and White-throated Sparrows are a fairly steady lot, there are others which come and go like shifting breezes. The winter finches are such a group. Because these birds don’t check in at the toll booth, we never know on any given day whether Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, or Red-polls are part of our park populous.
Fortunately, we do have a place to look for them. Like finding truckers at a truck stop or Senior citizens at a health fair, our visiting finches will be found at the Alder Groves. Black Alders are water-loving trees that produce small seed-bearing cones (strikingly similar to pine cones). Finches, being seed eaters extraordinaire, love alder cones and the energy-rich seeds they provide. Last week a huge group of Common Red-polls showed up in our lake-side alder trees.
Red-polls are visitors from the so-called taiga\tundra region in the high north country occupied by Polar Bears and Caribou. They are small sparrow-sized birds with a streaky cream and brown décor. Although not all individuals have it, most have a red spot on their forehead (thus the name), a black goatee, and a red- washed breast. Our recent visitors spent their time suspended from alder cones and were extracting the seeds using their pointy little bills. At times several birds were working the same clump of cones. All of them – perhaps a hundred or so - were in constant motion as they swirled about the branches like the arctic wind spirits they are. Also, like those very winds, they moved out by the next day.
First to be Last Feb. 5, 2012
Around these parts, we expect the first Red-winged Blackbird of the season to arrive around Valentine’s Day (aww….isn’t that sweet!). So, when a few of the black & red males were spotted taking up positions on some of the marsh-side trees we weren’t especially surprised. It is a tad early, but then again all the local stores have had their Valentine’s Day stuff out since New Year’s Day. Perhaps the Red-wing marketing uppity-ups decided to market their representative birds earlier this year (“Gotta get out there and push,” the e-mail would say, “we can’t let those bobbin robins get all the eye time. We are the original birds of Spring after-all. Konk-a-re-ah! Red-w-i-n-g-s RULE”).
There are a few slight marketing problems, however. Nothing to get one’s feathers ruffled over, mind you, but the front office has expressed some concerns. There are a few Red-winged Blackbirds, for instance, that do not leave in the fall. These die-hards stick around all winter. There were over 30 that stuck around the Lake Erie marshes according to the Christmas Bird Count. One bird, shown below, was spotted feasting on Poison Ivy berries back in December. Things like this make it hard to say simple catch-all phrases like “Red-wings migrate in the fall and are among the first to return.” Corporate likes simple phrases. The necessity of adding the word “most” throws a wrench into the whole marketing thing. They choose to ignore those overwintering types altogether.
It is therefore hard to say whether a Red-wing sighted in February is a new comer or a late lingerer. Tan lines would help, but they do not show on birds. While it is certain that the Poison Ivy bird was a lingerer, it is harder to say that the opened mouth singer shown above was unpacking or simply enjoying the crisp morning air. The fact that he – along with a few others that showed up this morning – were perched high and announcing some tentative claims to territory supports the “first to return” scenario. The corporate line is that this individual is definitely a new arrival.
Scads ‘O Ducks on the Wintry Waters Jan. 29, 2012
According to the latest Christmas Count, there are at least 13,048 waterfowl out on the Detroit River Mouth this winter. This total included over 5,500 Canvasbacks, 1,600 Goldeneyes, over 1,000 Mallards, and a similar total of Canada Geese. The variety was incredible and included Ruddys, Buffleheads, all three species of Merganser, Red-heads, Ring-necks, two kinds of grebe, Gadwalls, Wigeons, Black Ducks, Shovelers, a few Long-tailed (Old Squaw) Ducks, and even a single Wood Duck with a confused look on his face. These were the actual birds individually spotted by counters who were squinting through spotting scopes and binoculars. And, even though the birders were as thorough as humanly possible, their reported numbers can never be absolute ones. So, let’s just say there were “scads” of ducks. Of course we can’t leave it there.
A “Scad” on paper is one thing, but a “scad” on the water is quite another. More and more ducks have gathered out on the chilly river since the count. Colder weather and food needs have forced them together. Most of these newer birds were Canvasbacks, those royal-beaked divers (aka “Cans”) which feed on the water celery bulbs found on the river bottom. There were so many in the view between our shoreline and the distant Detroit River light (some 4 miles away) that they appeared like a black oil spill. That being a negative connotation, we should call it a “duck spill”, or perhaps refer to it properly as a “raft.”
Because we have several separate Canvasback rafts grouped together into an assembled mega-raft, however, we believe “scad” is a better way to put this phenomenon into words. If you are keeping track, then, a scad is made up of multiple rafts and a raft is made up of multiple ducks. Better yet, just come out and see this stuff yourself and never mind what to call it. The sight of a scad of mega-rafting Cans is one beyond descriptive words (as we have amply proved here).
Ice Sculptures Jan. 22, 2012
January has not lived up to its reputation this year. For those of us who like winter, we’ve been down in the dumps and mumbling to ourselves. Cheerful winter haters have been walking on cloud nine lately. None of us should talk too loudly about this either way, however, lest we hurt her feelings. January has a fickle way about her and any comment – positive or negative – could cause her to send forth a vengeful blast before February hits. Fortunately, here at the Marshlands Museum our Ice Daze weekend on Jan, 21 & 22 had all the winter it needed.
One of the regular features of the festival is an ice carving in the front planter bed. This year’s edition was a gnarled tree trunk. Knowing that it is traditional for chainsaw carvers to make art out of tree trunks, our carver decided to reverse the process and use his chain saw to carve a tree trunk (basically just because he could!). “Trees are worthy pieces of art by themselves,” our overly emotional carver was heard to say. Fortunately the arrival of single digit temperatures insured that this creation stuck around for the entire weekend –stumping all who came to view it.
One of the Norway Maples in our museum yard, just opposite the sculpture, apparently took the carver’s effort to heart and started to weep tears of joy. The tears froze into a multi-pointed icicle and it remained throughout the rest of the weekend. We know these tears are joyful because they are sweet – so-called “sugar sickles” formed by running sap running from a broken branch. We would expect sugar sickles in February, but this is the earliest we’ve seen these sap creations around here. Some may attribute this phenomenon to the 50 degree days from earlier in the week, but we know it was the tree sculpture that did it. We just know.
Blustery Bubo Jan. 12, 2012
Normally, it would be expected that any mention of a January wind would be coupled with descriptive words such as “bitter” or “frigid.” The wind gusts hitting the park the other day, however, were better described as “balmy” or even “weird.” The spring-like gales were de-fuzzing the cat-tail heads and prompting the Cottonwoods to whisper secrets among themselves. A lone Great horned Owl was out in that wind as well. He was trying his best to look dignified but not succeeding.
This bird is one half of a pair of owls that we call the “marsh owls” due to the fact that they always nest in Cottonwood cavities located out in the marsh (clever name, eh?). He can safely be called a “he” because of his smaller stature. Not only are the females significantly larger than the males, the “marsh owl” female is much more secretive than the male and nearly always roosts well away from prying human eyes. The male is very tolerant and, well, he couldn’t give a hoot about who sees him (that was a double pun, by the way). He also seems to select exposed roosting sites and this has made him the photographer’s friend over the years.
The stiff breeze was catching the back of his head and elevating the so-called “horns” to a near vertical position. Of course these aren’t horns at all -they are merely feather tufts – but one can see how the species got its name. A windblown Bubo virginianus is definitely an owl endowed with great horns! The presence of the photographer caused the bird to turn his gaze sideways and resulted in both tufts flapping sideways in the wind. A suggestion was made that the bird seek denser cover, but the remarks were silently returned with a frigid glance.
More Than Meets the Eye Jan. 6, 2012
We’d like you to take a look at these photos for a minute. Actually, we ask that you concentrate on the last two photos and draw your own conclusions. The docks down at the Lake Erie boat launch are pretty lonely looking this time of year. They are pulled up onto the ramp in storage position and currently serve no greater purpose beyond that of gull perches. These pictures, although they depict our docks, are not intended to be dock pictures (they would be very poor dock pictures if they were). The gulls are the subject of this photo set, but, this set is not meant to be a photo essay on gull identification (again, if it were then it would be a very poor photo essay because we only show one species). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The birds themselves are fine, although sleepy, examples of winter-plumaged Ring-billed Gulls. These small gulls are the most common of their type here – winter, spring, summer, and fall. Adult birds are snow white with gray back and wing feathers during the summer and take on a speckled gray hood as their winter couture. Hopefully you won’t question why they are called Ring-billed Gulls. If you do find yourself forming such a question just direct your glance at the bird’s bill and note the ring around it (some things in life are both logical and easy). What is not easily explained, however, is how the birds are perched. This is the core of this posting.
Our docks are numbered – each side gets a designation (the first dock is labeled “1” on the left side and “2” on the right etc.). This is so we know when one has escaped. On the day these pictures were taken there were exactly three gulls perched on the posts of dockside “3” and four birds on dockside “4.” And, in case you are wondering, there was exactly one bird on dockside number “1.”
Coincidence? Perhaps. Are these birds smarter than they initially appear? Perhaps. Are we thinking too much? You decide. Were there two gulls on dockside “2”? We’re not saying.
Owl Be Darned Dec. 21, 2011
Thanks to the diligent eyes of one of our regular park birders, a tiny Saw-Whet Owl was recently discovered along one of our nature trails. It is unnecessary to say “tiny” when describing Saw-whets, because there is no such thing as a big Saw-whet Owl, but it is worth emphasizing the point because they are no bigger than a can of Campbell’s Soup (or Spaghettios if you are a fan). This means that they are very hard to spot when roosting.
This owl chose a typical Saw-Whet posting by selecting a place where mixed grape vines and vine Honeysuckles formed a dense overhead roof over a leaning shrub. True to form, the space below the perch was relatively clear and the location was fairly close to the ground. The creature has returned to the spot for day-napping for over a week now and it appears that it might stick out the winter with us.
Multiple visits by staff and public alike, have resulted in a slew of photos – some better than others, but all depicting a slumbering owl who could care less about the humans gawking at it. A few days ago, the little fellow was actually sitting atop one of his night-time catches. A cold snowy morning peppered the micro owl with granular snowflakes as it tucked its face deep into his back feathers. At his feet, the still figure of a Deer Mouse provided a stable perch. Saw-Whets are Deer Mouse specialists. This one no doubt provided a nice early evening snack when the owl woke up and began its winter night patrols.
A Nut on High Dec. 16, 2011
At first glance, this walnut wedged into the crotch of a small sapling might seem like a case of serendipity. It is feasible, after all, that among all the falling walnuts of the world more than a few would end up entrapped in this manner (you know, something like a million monkeys pecking away at a typewriter will eventually write a novel etc.). This is not one of those serendipitous nuts, however.
Falling walnuts are covered with a thick husk, and this one is as clean as a….well, not a whistle but as clean as a nut with a husk thoroughly removed. No, this nut was deliberately husked first and then deliberately wedged into place as a means of temporary storage. The guilty nut wedger of note, at least in this case, was a Red Squirrel.
These pint-sized members of the squirrel clan (with red-brown on top, white below with a black racing stripe dividing the two colors) are habitual hoarders. They will strip a tree of nuts and fill up every local nook and cranny with their collection. The crotches of small trees come in handy for the same purpose. In the summer, apples and succulent mushrooms are often given the same treatment. Seeing a nut so treated is as sure a sign that Red Squirrels are in the area as seeing the little buggers themselves!
Consulting the Weather ‘Rat Dec. 2, 2011
Forget the Woodchuck and the Wooly Bear – they don’t know a thing when it comes to winter prediction. After all, both of those guys are deep in hibernation when the temperatures are going down and the snow is piling up. No, here in the mucky lowlands at the Detroit River mouth old timers put their trust in the prognostication skills of the lowly mushrat. “The bigger the mushrat cabin”, they say, “the worst the winter.” As if to put a period on that statement, a shot of tobacco juice is usually directed at a nearby spittoon (or a spot of un-baptized ground). And, by golly, they are right 50% of the time.
In all fairness to God and country, mushrats (aka muskrats) are winter pros. These marshland critters remain active throughout the winter - swimming under the ice and digging cat-tail roots all season long. so, they must know something- right? They don’t begin their new lodge construction until well into November (as if waiting for the latest news on upcoming conditions). Lodges (aka cabins) are constructed by piling mud, roots, cat-tail stems, and lily pads into a mound. An underwater entrance is dug into the heap and the ‘rat tunnels up into the structure to create a series of small rooms. Even though the carbon dioxide levels inside one of these houses can rise to a near-fatal level over the course of a long winter, the muskrats are able to tolerate this.
Now, the old timers would never tolerate such talk about CO2 poisoning. “Just put in one of them detectors,” they’d say. “That would take care of that issue.” Anyway, let’s get back to this weather thing. We have two very large muskrat cabins rising up out of the marsh close to the Cherry Island Marsh Trail. Not only are these things “above average” to begin with, but the ‘rats are still piling stuff on top of them as we speak. We may have two dag-nabbed ski hills by Christmastime. Therefore It‘s a fair bet to say that there is a 50% chance that we will have a rough winter this season. “In a mushrat’s eye, you say? Well we’ll see (once we find that spittoon).
Half a Dollar Deer Nov. 23, 2011
‘Tis the season for bucks and things and we have our fair share roaming about the park. Normally the bucks are more than a bit reclusive but it’s rutting time and love is in the air. As we humans know all too well, love makes all things stupid. It’s not uncommon to spot a hefty six or eight pointer galloping across the parkway in pursuit of a fresh doe trail – completely oblivious to any car, walker, or biker in the vicinity.
Although we’ve spotted plenty of large bucks this season, it is not our intention to highlight these beasts here. No, the awkward appearance of a first year buck in the museum yard prompted this post. There were two mature does grazing in the grass early in the pre-Thanksgiving dawn as a young male approached them across the museum yard. To say that this poor little fellow was gawky might seem a bit cruel, but like the math major on prom night he looked “assembled” rather than groomed. The does rejected his advances immediately and bounded off to the big dance – leaving our deer at the punch bowl.
This specimen of pubescent maleness sported a set of tiny spike antlers. They weren’t even equal in size. An oddly placed tuft of brown hair rose out of the back of his head. And, as if unwilling to shave his only real set of facial hairs, several extremely long whiskers jutted out from his chin. We won’t even mention the lack of any neck muscles or real beef of any sort. You can bet he was surrounded by an invisible cloud of cheap cologne. But, there is no hope for this freshman deer. For now he’s only worth 50 cents. Next year, maybe he’ll be worth a buck.
Laying a Foundation for the Future Nov. 17, 2011
For lack of a better word, we often use the term “insulation foam” to describe the hardened bubbly nature of a Praying Mantis case. Female mantids lay their eggs in late fall and protect them within a foamy egg case (which some insist on calling an ootheca). Indeed, like that commercial spray can insulation foam, the “egg-case stuff” comes out in liquid form and slowly hardens after contact with the air. This is not a process often witnessed, however. We see these cases long after they are laid and hardened. Last week we were fortunate enough to catch our captive Mantis in the act of depositing her egg case and can now say that the process is more like whipping up a topping for a Lemon meringue pie.
We witnessed our female begin the process by laying down a foundation of cream colored-liquid. She whipped it into a bubbly froth using a finger-like projection (s?) coming out the tip of her abdomen as it was exuded. She’d work it in an arching motion from the top center down to the base and then over to the middle. Once at the middle, the spray nozzle was directed up to the top center and the action of the frothing mechanism (or what-ever you want to call it) stopped. The liquid came out without large bubbles. A pumping action of the abdomen indicated that an egg was being deposited as the tip was slowly lowered back down to the bottom center. The next set of movements mirrored the first.
This sequence was repeated again, and again, and again. She took over 2 hours to complete her job – working non-stop the entire time. The material dried within an hour of deposit. They say that mantids can lay as many as a half dozen of these cases before croaking at the end of the season. Yes, our mantis will eventually croak as well, but she can die knowing that this particular contribution to the curious world was a special one.
Parkway Speed = 10 cpm Nov. 6, 2011
Officially, our parkway speed is around 15 mph. Although there are many individual interpretations as to what that actually means, at least everyone is in agreement that mph means “miles per hour.” Unofficially, the current parkway speed is around 10 cpm. This particular rate can vary over the course of the day, but it is independent of the actual speed of your automobile. What does this mean, you ask? Well we are, of course, referring to “caterpillars per mile.”
The caterpillars responsible for this cpm rating are Wooly Bears – the fuzzy young’ns of the Isabella Tiger Moth. These black and orange larvae have long been known among folklore circles as prognosticators of winter conditions. The presence of wide orange sweaters supposively indicates cold winters and narrow orange sweaters mild ones etc. This ability is entirely bogus, but that does not seem to matter (sort of like ghost hunting and the use of Ouija boards).
At any rate, these fellows are on the move this month. On sunny fall days they can be seen crossing our parkways by the hundreds. Though careful measurement, and the restrained use of a Quija board, we have determined that these beasts clip along at about .6 - .7 mph. Exactly why they are doing this is a bit of a mystery. Some believe that the chickens put them up to it. But the fact remains that on any given drive down the parkway, a person will encounter an average of 10 Wooly Bears per mile: that’s 10 cpm. Unfortunately, a few of these encounters will result in some tragic results, but if one drives at the regulation speed there is plenty of time to avoid “ffo” trouble (the point at which one’s mph conflicts with the cpm and results in a flattened fauna occurrence.)
Bwa-ha-ha-ha Oct. 30, 2011
Yes, it’s Hallowe’en (the proper spelling of the season) and there be witches butter and lifting lotus about. In the misty realms of the decaying Lotus bed – now a death bed, so to speak – the spirits of lost lotus are rising out of the muck to seek shelter in the other world beyond winter. Some spirits, apparently relishing their release from earthly responsibilities, appear rather jolly (see below) as they poke their faces above the steely gray waters.
Though some may claim it is due to the falling water level, it was obvious to us that at least one of these laughing spirits was rising above the surface and reflecting his hollow emptiness in the water below. Other lotus specters were more ominous looking – perhaps ready to inflict their mucky coldness on any night-time passerby. Suspended in air by the crack of the morning dawn, they will await the sun’s falling to resume their wanderings.
Along the trail just up from the Lotus cemetery, a tell-tale clump of wrinkled orange jelly on a fallen branch betrays the location of an un-holy presence from a few nights before. Like pumpkin-colored brains, the marmalade-like folds of the Witches Butter Fungi indicate that there is rot about. Scientists will tell you that this stuff is a parasite opon the mycelia of the other wood-rotting fungus.
The rot, they will say, is in the wood of the branch. We know, of course, that the rot actually passed by in the form of a witch. The hag was, no doubt, munching upon her bat-meat sandwich (slathered in putrid orange marmalade and lotus eyes), when several plops of the disgusting ingredients fell upon the branch from her slobbering lips. Bwa-ha-ha-ha…eeeeeww!
A Big Gulp of Swallows Oct. 25, 2011
We aren’t sure what to call a big group of Tree Swallows. Owls have their “Parliament,” Crows their “Murder,” so it’s not unreasonable to call a gathering of Tree Swallows a “Forest.”Perhaps a “Big Gulp” of Tree Swallows might be more appropriate. Well, whatever you call it, we had one – a huge gathering of Tree Swallows that is.
Last week, a hardy nor’easter blew in with an armada of low clouds full of cold spittle rain. The mid-day temps were just shy of 48 degrees F., so it is safe to say that it was a Class A type miserable day. It was not the kind of day conducive to insect eating birds such as swallows. Most of the other insect eating fowl have headed south by now. Tree Swallows are often the exception to this rule, however. They are famous for sticking around deep into the chilliest days of fall, and even into early winter. Because they can switch over to berry crops as food, the lack of insect fare doesn’t bother them.
It is common for Tree Swallows to flock up during the fall and they often appear in mega flocks during the fall migration. Oddly enough, this cold blustery day presented us with one of the largest concentrations of Tree Swallows any of us had ever seen. Based on the photo evidence (and a good measure of guessing) there were upwards of 5,000-7,000 birds in this mass of feathered life. The flock was bucking the wind and swirling about like a school of ocean fish. The sky was full of them and they stuck around for the entire day. Apparently they were feeding on aerial clouds of midges blown in from Lake Erie. Perhaps the insects were clustered by the effects of the wind as well. This was indeed a “Big Gulp” of swallows.
Leaf collecting Oct. 16, 2011
Because there are so many deer wandering about the place, we tend to get that “deer in the headlights” look whenever we see one lately. But, on occasion, we spot them doing something out of the ordinary and they catch our eye (or our camera lens). While it would be fascinating to show you a picture of a fawn riding on a motorbike or a pair of young bucks playing Frisbee out in the picnic area, we can at least bring you a few shots of some deer collecting autumn leaves.
This is the time of year when human children seek brightly hued and multi-shaped leaves. They preserve them between sheets of wax paper and then seek recognition for their efforts in the form of grades or science fair ribbons. Well, we can now report that White-tailed Deer also make leaf collections. A doe and her two teenage fawns ambled into the yard one rainy afternoon and proceeded to select from the fine crop of fallen leaves under our hefty Red maple tree.
This situation was note-worthy only because their effort was so completely dedicated to picking up the bright leaves. They completely ignored the greenery and went from leaf to leaf. Of course they pick them up (having no opposable thumbs to do so) but ate them instead. One after one the pretty fall leaves were gobbled up like so many potato chips. After a ten -minute session of leaf picking, the deer continued on. O.K., so this was not so extraordinary, but now you know that deer do eat autumn leaves! It would have been thrilling to see them press the leaves in wax paper, but that was asking too much. We will settle for watching some kids eat some of their leaf collection.
Wapato You Up To Oct. 9, 2011
Yes, this is a silly title but so what – it got your attention didn’t it? Actually the title isn’t as non-sensical as you might think. The plant pictured above, which is pointing up we must point out, is indeed a Wapato - the original name for what we know today as the Arrowhead plant. By original we mean the Native (Algonquin language) term which can be loosely translated as “Duck Potato.” Of course, this pretty well forces us to explain why something would be called a duck potato doesn’t it? Well, the starchy potato-like tubers of the Wapato have long served as a native food source. Muskrats ate them long before the Algonquians thought of doing so but since they don’t speak we don’t know what they called them. Add to this the fact that these plants grow in marshy situations, where ducks tend to hang out, and you have a perfectly logical name for a perfectly practical plant.
Everything about the plant is based on three – even both names possess three syllables. The arrow-shaped leaf has three corners, the flowers have three petals and the stem is triangular. The globular seed heads are arranged into threes as well. We suppose there are at least three ways to cook them up as well, but have to plead ignorance on this account. There are at least three definite ways not to cook them up, however, and that is enough.
Please don’t eat our Wapato (in which case we would have to declare an indignant “Wapato you up to!”) but do take a few minutes to notice it before the autumn frosts reduce them to lifeless stalks.
Two Young’ns at One Point in Time Sept. 21, 2011
The 2011 version of Hawkfest went off very well. Hawkfest pretty much always goes well, but there are good years and o.k. years. The variance, of course, depends upon the wild migration of birds overhead. In some years the big push – the flight consisting primarily of Broadwing Hawks – coincides with the event weekend. Historically, the third week is the date of this push but it doesn’t always fall on a weekend (when humans can attend events such as Hawkfest without skipping work). This year was one of those good years. Over 190,000 Broadwings streamed overhead on the morning of Sept. 17th and our visitors were treated to a spectacular flight.
As good as the overhead migration gets, however, it will never take the place the “bird in hand” experience. This is why we invite speakers to bring live hawks for presentation and why we cooperate with bird bander Dave Hogan. Hogan and his team worked throughout the weekend at their remote banding station. Whenever they captured a bird, they bring it over to the festival for release. We try to pick a young person in the audience to do the actual release. Only one hawk was brought over on Saturday but, since each and every time is a quality experience, the quantity is of little merit (sure, we’d like a lot more, but that “ain’t in our control”).
The temporary captive in this case was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. These diminutive bird-eaters are one of the more common migrants in the autumn surge. They also happen to be suckers for the live Starling bait birds used at the netting location (no harm comes to the Starling, by the way). Sharpies, as they are affectionately known among hawk watchers, have long slender legs, squared off tails, and rounded wings which make them suitable for quick maneuverable flight.
This bird was an immature individual, probably born in March or April of this year. It had the bright yellow eyes and the speckled brown plumage of a first year bird. They become ruby-eyed and slatey backed upon adulthood. We passed the bird off to an enthusiastic young lady in the audience for release. The two bonded as the young human held the young bird for a moment. At the collective count “one, two, three” she threw the hawk into the air and it re-entered the migration stream.
We can never be sure about the hawk’s perspective during this brief experience. We can’t claim any insight into hawk psyche, but we know that the humans (especially the young ones) will never forget that experience. That is what Hawkfest is all about.
A Credible Cricket Sept. 7, 2011
A very long time ago a guy called Linnaeus proposed the idea of a clock garden. Based on the idea that different flowers opened (and closed) at different times, he said that one could plant an assortment of chosen varieties and be able to tell the time of day based on their daily flowering cycle. For instance, Goatsbeards bloomed from 5 am until 11 am and Four ‘O Clocks bloom at, well, ….you get the idea. It wasn’t very precise (like telling someone to meet you at “half past Goatbeard”) but, back when clocks didn’t have minute hands, arriving within a few hours of an appointment time was perfectly acceptable.
As far as we know, Mr. Linnaeus never actually planted his clock garden (possibly due to the advent of daylight savings time?), but he did plant the idea of using nature to measure our environment. Some plants and animals can be as precise as our own technology at recording time and temperature. We encountered one such natural measuring device on our recent Crack ‘O Dawn Walk the other day. It was a male Snowy Tree Cricket hanging out on the boardwalk. This spindly tree-climbing insect is a precision thermometer.
All crickets and grasshoppers call faster in warmer weather than they do in colder weather. Their rate of calling is mathematically correlated to the temperature of the surrounding air. Unfortunately, it takes a mathematical genius to calculate these numbers for all but the Snowy Tree Cricket (shown here). Their call is a hollow repetitious “chirrup chirrup chirrup”. All you have to do to reap this cricket’s knowledge is to count the number of chirps in 15 seconds and add 40. That being done, you will arrive at the exact air temperature in Fahrenheit. Yes, we said “exact”.
Our Crack ‘O Dawn Cricket remained mute, but his fellow songsters were calling in full chorus by nightfall – about the time the Day-lilies closed up.
True Blue August 24, 2001
It’s just a Blue Jay feather, you say? A common feather from a common bird found laying on the trail. But, of course, it’s so much more than that. To be precise, we could label it as a secondary feather from the left wing of a Blue Jay. We could guess as to the fate of the feather’s owner. Based on the fact that there was only a single feather – as opposed to a whole pile of them – it’s a safe bet that our anonymous jay is still with us… as in alive (A pile would indicate an ecologically fitting end in the stomach of one of the local Cooper’s Hawk). It is also a safe conclusion that the bird is no longer with us – as in still hanging about. We’ve been seeing big regional movements of Blue Jays lately but most don’t stick around the park.
Now the blue thing. You’ve might of heard one of us Interpretive types say that feathers such as these are not really blue. Of course the feather is blue, but there are no actual blue pigments in this feather. Should we take this thing, grind it up and run it through a super fine microscopic atom picker (or whatever you call them) we would find nary a single nanobyte of blue pigment. This blue is called a structural color. The hue owes its existence to refraction of the sun’s rays. If there were no sun, the feather would be brown. Obviously, if there were no sun there would be no Blue Jays either so this line of reasoning can only take us so far.
We could go into the barb and shaft structure and other techno talk but are really left with only one more thing to say. This is really a beautiful blue feather. It is a stunning work of natural art which requires no deep explanation. Just a Blue Jay feather?
It’s Springtime…Wait, No it’s Not! Aug. 18, 2011
There was something about the recent rains (“recent” as in a few weeks back) that brought forth a crop of Chorus Frogs. These tiny frogs normally emerge from hibernation in early spring, sing their little lungs out, mate, and then disappear into the leaf litter for another year. They are extremely common from March to May but rare as hen’s teeth for the rest of the warm season. Chorus Frogs emerge en masse and sing en masse which is why they are called Chorus Frogs and not Soloist Frogs. In this trait they are very much like the current crop of Cicadas that are buzzing their way through the month of August. They are about the same size as these insect singers and about the same size as well.
We took advantage of this rare opportunity to snap a few close-up shots because these amphibians are near impossible to capture – even when they are everywhere. One could say that two chorus Frogs in the hand are better than 5,000 in the bush but we won’t (oops, looks like we already did). One can certainly say that picturing them in hand confirms just how small they really are. It is one thing to say they are thumb-sized and quite another to show them on one’s thumb! The back spotting and eye mask, clearly seen in these views, are distinctive markings for this species. The underside view displays the thumb pads used for climbing.
Both creatures were quickly released back into the wilds from whence they came and they quickly melted into the greenery (and back into obscurity).
Butterfly, English? Aug. 6, 2011
Spotting this flighty orange butterfly on our recent evening walk, we were at a loss as to what to call the thing. It was one of the so-called “punctuation butterflies” – a group known for clear silver markings on their hind wings which resemble either question marks or commas. But, which one? The deciding marks are on the bottom side of the back wing. Needless to say, if the mark looks like a question mark then the butterfly in question is called a Question Mark. If the mark looks like a comma, then it’s a Comma. Simple enough, eh?
Normally all one needs to do is wait until the flutterby folds up his/her wings and reveals the secret code. The upper wings are very similar in both species. This individual, eagerly soaking up the last rays of the setting sun, was lacking his punctuation. The better part of both hind wings were missing. So, without a good reference along, it was impossible to tell exactly what this one was. This fact was covered up by simply saying that it was definitely a Question Mark due to the fact that it’s identity was unknown (Ha ha, they said, as all shook their heads). In other words, the identity remained a blank space after a colon.
Later on, examination of the forewings (on the photo) revealed this half-winged butterfly to be a Comma, but it was too late. There was no one around to tell it to. We are happy, however, to bring you a photo of this very perky punctuation butterfly with two explanation points coming out of his head.
A New Cray in a Day July 30, 2011
When one of our crayfish went belly up on the bottom we figured that it was “his time” (to go wherever dead crayfish souls go to). Our ‘crays are non-native Louisiana Mudbugs gifted to us at the end of each school year by a science teacher friend of ours. Most don’t make it past one year. Closer examination revealed, however, that reports of our crayfish’s death were greatly exaggerated. He was actually resurrecting himself - creating a new self out of old stuff. In other words, he was molting.
This miraculous process, properly called ecdysis, involves shedding the exoskeleton or hard cuticle layer. It is usually performed in secret – not due to shame, but due to vulnerability. A molting crayfish is totally defenseless and a freshly molted one is soft-shelled (and very edible). After flipping over on his back, the top forward section (called the carapace) flipped forward and up like the trunk of a car. The ‘cray then arched his back and began to slowly pull his new carapace and abdomen out of their old “skin.” The claws (or claw – singular – in this case) are pulled out gradually.
Once the limbs were free, the creature exploded out and away. Although the whole process took nearly 10 minutes, the last part of the act was very sudden. Only the blink of the camera flash caught the final flurry (see above). The remaining shell (see below) was a Picasso-esque version of the original creature.
Our re-born crayfish, after a few days of expansion within its new casing, now sports a new larger shell. Assuming that they do this kind of thing once a year, this new look should last him until he actually kicks the bucket.
A Little Brown “Thing” July 21, 2011
It is our job to point out a few things that you might miss during your visit to Lake Erie Metropark. We are always touting historical, floral, and faunal sights and sounds. We might even get into geological or astronomical concerns, but here we are venturing into something that does not fit any of the above. We are talking Slime Mold here – neither plant nor fungus, but a strange entity that exhibits some animal like traits. Wierd? Yes, indeed. Wierd for us to point it out as a feature of our park? Maybe.
A strange growth (pictured here) appeared atop one of the cut logs in the museum yard. The combination of a dousing rain and hot humid weather prompted this quarter-sized tuft of red-brown “hair” to emerge out of the wood. This peculiar structure is the fruiting stage of a type of slime mold called the Chocolate Tube Slime Mold. It’s hard to believe that someone actually came up with such an appealing name for a mold, but there it is. Boring people call it the Brown Stemonitis Mold. Interesting, albeit occasionally boring folks, describe it as a “sprawling crawling plasmodium slime.”
Slime molds slink about and feed on decaying wood. They do not root, but move about in the fashion of an amoeba. When the food runs low, they stop and sprout fruiting bodies which are full of spores. The spores blow away into the wind to germinate into new slime molds. Now, tell us you are not even slightly fascinated by this thing.
Now You See it- Now You Don’t July 15, 2011
Banded Hairstreaks are frequent visitors to our backyard milkweed patch. They seem to find great pleasure in sipping the sweet nectar. Like hungry patrons camping out at the door of a popular restaurant waiting for the “open” sign to appear, many can’t even wait for the flowers to open before trying to wedge their long slender tongue into the central opening. Let’s just say they REALLY like milkweed elixir.
Along with the sweet pleasure, however, comes sweet danger. There are plenty of hungry predators out there seeking sweet loving insects. Most of these are of the avian persuasion such as Kingbirds and their Flycatcher kin. The hairstreaks are not ignorant of these dangers. They come to the table ahead of the game – in fact, with two heads for the game. This statement needs explanation, of course.
These tiny brown jewels sport a delicate hair-like tail off the trailing edge of their hind wings. You’ll note that there is a prominent orange spot at the base of this structure. Together, they serve the purpose of a decoy head complete with a bright eye spot and a pair of thin antennae. A Quick-acting predator has a 50-50 chance of grabbing the wrong head when they attack the butterfly. If they grab the false head, the hairstreak can break free and live for another day.
Thus the reason you see Banded Hairstreaks missing chunks of their wings where their decoy heads used to be (shown above)! These are the survivors. Unfortunately, they can only use this ploy once, as you might imagine.
In the Cow Parsley Pasture July 6, 2011
The primary resident of our Cow Parsley patch was a Black Swallowtail caterpillar. We say “was” because this creature is now in captivity – serving as a summer display inside the museum. Cow Parsley is a gigantic version of the meek garden herb, thus the name (they probably don’t call it Bull Parsley because it doesn’t have any horns). Because it is in the carrot family, this plant serves as suitable grazing stock for our local population of Black Swallowtail Butterflies and the patch faithfully yields an annual harvest of caterpillars.
The larva of the Black Swallowtail is a beautiful beast. Although it appears boldly marked with alternating green, black, and yellow stripes it is actually endowed with cryptic coloration. Amongst the interplay of light and linear shadows of the food plant it is well near invisible. Obviously this one was not completely invisible because we found it, but hopefully you know what we mean (and the reason for use of the phrase “well near”).
Caterpillars are eating machines – tubes, really, with a powerful chewing mouth at one end and a …well, you-know-what at the other. True to form, our tubular captive continued to munch away as his portrait was being taken. He consumed an entire leaflet within a few minutes without even looking up. The head capsule (see below) of this larva was colored just like the rest of the beast so the tiny clustered eyes, located to either side of the mouth, are “well near” impossible to see (in fact truly impossible). There are 16 pairs of legs along the body which are arranged in three sets: 6 shiny pro-legs, 8 grasping legs, and two terminal legs. The single you-know-what at the far end of this walking intestine is regularly employed to deposit grenade-like green droppings every few minutes.
Soon this fellow (when about 2 inches in length) will stop eating, secure itself to a solid surface, and then shed a final layer of skin in order to turn into a chrysalis. Eventually it will be an impressive black and yellow-spotted adult, but for now it is an impressive black and yellow tube.
When Still Waters Run Rough June 26, 2011
Around these parts, water boils at temperatures between 63 and 78 degrees F. Of course, it really doesn’t “boil” in the literal sense, but figuratively there is no other way to describe what happens when our carp get frisky. The Carp spawning season, an early summer phenomenon, occurs within this water temperature range. When schools of the portly fish get to sloshing around in the shallows they cause our normally calm marsh waters to boil with activity.
Large females, some carrying well over 2 million eggs, seek out weedy sun-warmed waters for their egg laying. They are escorted by a small school of smaller males. The guy fish cruise about in the company of the girl fish until such time she starts to release her cargo of caviar. At that point she will dash into, and often over, a bed of water plants and start spewing her eggs onto the leaves and stems. The males try to stay as close as possible so that they can fertilize the eggs as they are released. All of this ruckus creates a whole lot of surface splashing as multiple backs and tail fins come out of the water.
There are often hundreds of fish spawning at the same time and in the same general location, so our shallow still waters will run rough until the season passes. The translucent eggs of the Carp are about 1 mm in diameter. They are covered with a sticky outer layer and will adhere on contact as they rain down onto the submerged vegetation (see below). After 4-6 days, the tiny carplets will hatch out and prepare themselves for a life of bottom sucking and surface boiling.
A Bullfrog named Glacial June 16, 2011
With the exception of Luc, our Bald Eagle, we do not generally name our animals here at the museum. This is due to a lack of proper imagination and a suitable stock of names, but it is also due to the mortality of our captives. A Mayfly adult named “Ted”, for instance, would be dead before the ink on his nametag dried. The Bull Frog tadpole residing in our smallest fish tank, however, has tempted us to change that naming policy. Of course it is ridiculous to name a tadpole in the first place because it will not be a tadpole long enough to warrant a fitting name. A name like “Polly” or “Finny” would become meaningless when said pollywog turns into a frog. “Ted” might be better, but who in their right mind would name a tadpole “Ted?” That is a Mayfly name.
Most tadpoles turn frog within a few months, but Bullfrogs and Green Frogs are the exception to this rule. Bullfrogs can take up to three years before committing their miraculous transformation, but two years is the average. Our tadpole arrived as a large wild-caught tadpole back in ’09 and has remained so ever since. This was his third year with us. He was obviously in no rush to convert. Call him “Glacial”.
Well, “Glacial” – or “G” for short - finally made up his mind to take the plunge and shed his childhood ways. Earlier in the month he sprouted a pair of back legs (see beginning picture) and recently developed a pair of front legs to go with them (see above). Interestingly enough, the first front left appendage popped out through the breathing pore located on that side (see below). There is no right side breathing pore so that foot came right out through the skin. His face is getting froggier as his whole mouth structure converts from pinch mouth to wide-mouth. All this is being fueled by absorption of the tail, so that member is getting smaller by the day.
Soon “G” will be a genuine frog and we’ll have to let him go. He will have to shed his artificial name and blend in with all those nameless frogs out there in the marsh. Good bye old friend, your time has come….finally.
Wild Haired Weed June 8, 2011
If we were to assign personalities to certain plants, the Wild Garlic would get the “goofy or disheveled” designation. If we were to take this thing one step further, we’d have to assign them names like Wilber or Percival. But, we won’t - take this any further that is. There are far too many of them and far too few of us to name them all. There are only so many goofy names out there, anyway. So, we will stick to Wild Garlic (or Allium canadense when in proper company).
These characters, whatever you call them, are currently blooming along the nature trails. They crowd the sunny spaces adjacent to our paths. Every one of them looks like it is having a bad hair day. Part of this disheveled look comes from indecisiveness on the part of the individual plants whether they should flower or bud. In this case, they do both at the same time in the same place.
The long thread-like leaves coming out of the “flowerhead” are tiny onion sprouts. Each is equipped with a bulb that looks just like a miniature green onion from the grocery store. These will fall off and plant themselves. There are usually a few pinkish flowers in the mix as well. These blooms are pollinated and eventually turn into seeds.
It has not been verified, but we also understand that the mop-headed Wild Garlic will keep vampires away. Unfortunately, they do not repel all bloodsuckers equally. There are plenty of mosquitoes out there along the garlic laden path.
Ew..There’s all Midges! June 2, 2011
There was a pile of midges on the foyer floor yesterday morning. This is not an unusual thing around these parts – after all, this is the midge hatching season. Before we got around to sweeping them up, a youthful visitor came through the door, looked down, and exclaimed “Ew, there’s all bugs!” as she jumped over the object of her declaration like an agile bunny rabbit on a hot plate.
Unfortunately we were not in the position to take advantage of that potential interpretive moment due to the fact that we were interpreting large numbers of children at the time. But, allow us to take that moment and run with it after the fact.
Midges, specifically the ones called Chironomids, are tiny two-winged flies that spend their youth as aquatic nymphs in the Detroit River and its adjacent marshes. They hatch en masse as adults and gather into huge night swarms in order to find mates. At this time of year our cup overfloweth with midges (see below if you don’t believe us). It is important to note that these little beasties do not feed on humans and, in fact, do not even have proper mouths for feeding on anything. They only live up to 5 days before finally running out of gas, so to speak. During that brief time they have only one thing on their mind (and that we will leave up to you to figure out). These creatures are an important part of the local food chain, so their appearance is a welcome one.
So, young lady who ever you are, be aware that these “bugs” are good little non-biting bugs. The use of the word “Ew”(or is it Ewe) is not fitting in this case. Please note that they have short wings, unlike those nasty mosquitoes, and have no long proboscis for sucking blood. They sneak in through the gap in the front door at night and assemble under our one working foyer light. There they dance until dropping to the floor in a little pile directly under the bulb. Also, it is not proper English to say “There’s all bugs.” You should have said “Look at all those Chironomids down there.” O.K., well, maybe that last part is wishful thinking on our part.
A Lot to Swallow May 25, 2011
The early portion of May is certainly Warbler centric, but the latter half of the month belongs to the Swallows. Most of the warblers simply pass through on their way north, but the members of our diverse swallow population are home-bodies. There are at least four to pick from: Tree, Rough-winged, Cliff, and the Barn variety. All are now in the process of breeding and their nest-building antics are putting them in the current limelight.
Our parkway bridges, docks, and trail bridges are the chosen nest sites for Barn and Cliff Swallows. Both of these birds make mud structures beneath overhangs. The resplendent Barn Swallows (see beginning photo), with their iridescent blue backs, orange breasts, and long forked tails are easy to identify. These little fellows grab a cluster of dead grass and then stop at one of our roadside puddles to add a daub of mud to the mouthful. Like tiny brickmakers they weave the mud and “straw” together to make an open cuplike nest.
The Cliff Swallows (see above) lack a long tail, but sport a cream colored forehead patch and a beautiful rusty throat. They are the potters of the bird world that make urn-shaped nests entirely out of daubs of mud. When gathering their muddy building material they flutter their wings like large butterflies – as if trying to keep them clean.
Tree Swallows, intensely blue-green birds with white bellies, are cavity nesters which express equal liking for our shoreline bird houses or in old woodpecker holes (see above). The odd birds out in this scenario are the rather plain looking Rough-winged Swallows. They are also cavity nesters which make use of tree and bank holes. Park visitor Andy Sturgess, however, discovered that our Rough-wings have more eclectic tastes.
Mr. Sturgess exited his car to get a look at the shoreline by the park boat launch. He turned around after walking a few feet away and noticed that a pair of Rough-wings immediately started eying his tailpipe (see his photos above and below)! One can only imagine what these birds were thinking, but it appears that they were seeking some pretty racy apartment space. No doubt they would have been blown away by the rent (and the exhaust).
Killdeer: the Stage Play now showing at a Lake Erie Parking Lot Near You
May 20, 2011
There is probably no better actor in the feathered world than the Killdeer. This bird performs its broken wing act with such perfection that you can almost feel the pain. The whole idea is to lure potential nest raiders away from the nest and the eggs. Upon approach the bird will run from the nest and begin the third act of King Lear. The plaintive calls speak of helplessness and of desperation. “I am injured beyond repair,” they say, “please take me and put me out of my misery.” Of course they add, through body language, “but, please take me over here…yes, come over this way in order to finish me off…still further…yes, waaaaay over here and then you can strike me down like the helpless sprite that I am.”
By the time the act has played out, the predator is lured well away from the nest location. The wounded thespian (that means actor by the way) is miraculously healed and flies away – eventually returning to the secret nest by a circuitous route. True to their stage smarts, they exaggerate every move and relay their message through loud enunciation. Their stage make-up is impeccable with dark contrasting neck rings and bright red eye liner contrasting with a pair of sad clown eyebrows.
About the only stage rule they break is that they turn their back to the audience (the predator). One never turns their back on the audience. This contrary move, however, becomes essential to the whole emotive essence of the performance. Killdeers have a bright orangish-red rump which they keep well hidden during non-acting times. When in performance mode they drop to the ground, turn up their “broken wing” at an un-natural angle and then flare out their tail to expose that bright orange rumpus. This serves as a beacon to even the most dim-witted of predators that the play has started and attention must be paid. Bravo, Killdeer, break a leg, …er…no, perhaps a fake wing, and be done with it.
A White Goose in the Wong Place May 6, 2011
Canada Geese are a very common resident of Lake Erie Metropark, so it is little wonder that we don’t pay too much attention to them on a day to day basis. Last week, however, one of the geese hanging out with our gang of Canadians caught our attention. It was a white goose – a very white goose with black wing tips – that stood out like, well, a white goose in a bunch of dark ones. This fellow also stood out because it was so small when compared to the giants it held company with. In fact, this fowl looked more like a domestic duck than a goose. But, it was a goose and an unusual one at that. We were host to a lost and lonely Ross’s Goose.
Ross’s Geese nest in the high Arctic and spend their winters in the sunny south of the Texas coast and places west. It rarely shows up in our neck of the woods. In their world they are very common, but in ours they are rare. Another white goose, called a Snow Goose, also occasionally shows up here as well but that species is quite a bit larger than the tiny Ross’s. There are other differences between the two species. The Ross’s has a shorter neck and a stubby triangular bill lacking, what is euphemistically called, a “grin patch.”
We are not sure where this bird came from or where it went, but at least we know who it belongs to. This species was named after a Hudson’s Bay Trader and amateur naturalist by the name of Ross (this name assigned in the 1860’s). So, even though the original Mr. Ross is long dead, it’s his bird. Let’s hope our little visitor finds others of his kind so they can lead him back to the White place.
Hoots Whose House was Rent Asunder April 27, 2011
The oldest owlet - worn and wiser
If you’ve been following the story of our owlet triplets you know that a Great-horned Owl family was nesting in a Cottonwood cavity located along one of our canals. If you haven’t been following, you can get up to speed by reading our earlier “Three Cigars” entry when the trio was officially announced. The nest cavity was barely visible from the trail, but was visible enough so that many folks came out to the park just to get a glimpse of these owls. For instance, a written response to the question “what program or activity brought you to the park today?” on one of our public information cards simply states: “Owls.” Knowing that we weren’t the object of all public interest made us a tiny bit sad, but we still felt “important” because it became our job to direct people to the viewing spot.
Last week’s windstorms brought about a big change in the life our three little hoots. Their cavity was destroyed – the entire top of the tree was taken off and their nest cavity floor was laid open to the elements. The owlets, apart from the trauma of being instantly homeless, were not hurt. Two of them scrambled to safety on some nearby branches (see below). The third, and oldest of the bunch, apparently took a plunge into the canal and managed to breast-stroke his way across to the haven of a small tree on the opposite bank (see beginning photo). In short, they are all safe, accounted for, and only slightly miffed. Of course owlets always look miffed, so that is hard to judge.
The two younger owlets (photo by Ike Austin)
Mom and dad continue to visit and feed them as if nothing happened. We at the museum continue to feel “important” as well. We can direct visitors to get a great view of the owlets which are now clearly visible on their respective tree limbs. In truth, this “tragedy” couldn’t have happened at a better time. Owlets always leave the nest before they can fly. Their parents continue to feed them as they wander and climb about like feathered monkeys until gaining flight feathers. Since our hoots were already nearly two months old, it was high time for them to leave the old homestead. They can tell their grand hootlets of the big “norwester” that once came on a dark stormy night and rent their house asunder.
Why Voles are Nervous Little Beasts April 18, 2011
The recent departure of the last of our wintering Long-eared Owls provided a golden opportunity to do some pellet snooping. We hosted upwards of a dozen birds at the peak of January - most of which hung around one central daytime roost. Their pellets, which are composed of undigested bone and hair, act as tiny time capsules which record their nocturnal menu selections. You can imagine how many pellets would accumulate from a dozen up-chucking birds over the course of a winter.
Close to 300 pellets – each averaging 3 inches in length – were collected and picked apart. Their boney contents were carefully teased out and set aside. Hundreds of pint-sized skeletal parts were found but special attention was paid to the skulls and jaw bones because they were the easiest to identify. Our conclusions verified what most everyone already knew: Long-eared Owls love Meadow Voles (those short-tailed cigar-shaped rodents sometimes referred to as Meadow Mice). Long-ears really REALLY like them.
Contents of Owl Pellets: Shrews in top left row, White-footed Mice in top center row, Bird skull in top right. The rest are Meadow Vole skulls.
As far as we could tell, we found the remains of at least 293 Meadow Voles in the mix. In other words, each pellet contained an average of one Vole. But, as the T.V. ads say, “That’s not all”. Yes, ladies and gents, order now and you’ll also receive the mortal remains of 11 Short-tailed Shrews, 9 White-footed Mice, and one small bird (all for the low price of $9.99 plus shipping via owl mail). The Owls were varying their diet a wee bit, but not much.
Detail of Meadow Vole Skulls
This past winter was a good year for Voles and for Long-eared Owls. By “good” we mean population numbers, but perhaps we should re-phrase that and say that it was actually a fairly short winter for Long-eared Owls and a very long winter for our short-tailed Voles.
Handy Trail Markers April 12, 2011
The passing of winter into spring brings about the appearance of some strange leafage along our trail system. Long before the natural vegetation actually sprouts, certain low growing branches begin to produce peculiar foliage. Similarly shaped “leaves” have been recorded on a little known shrubby species called Gottahandit toyou (a type closely related to Buckthorn). As far as we know, however, this tropical species has not been recorded in the park. We have a seasonal mystery here. Sure, the shapes are oddly familiar – in fact, they are dead wringers for gloves and are patterned in the same manner. But unlike gloves, which come in pairs, these growths are singular. Laundry socks are often singular as well, but they are only found in home environments.
Most of these odd leaves are quite small. If they were gloves, we’d say they are child or small woman sized, but of course they can’t be gloves. Gloves do not grow on trees (any child or small woman could tell you that). Gloves come from stores and glove companies.
Some of the glove trees even appear to take on directional qualities by orienting their leaf lobes to point to particular locations. It is possible that over time we could “train” these shrubs (through selective pruning) to actually point out trail directions and such. But, because the early spring leaves are so temporary this probably wouldn’t be such a practical idea. So, for now, we’ll just have to let our final judgment slide until we come up with a handy explanation.
Three Cigars! April 3, 2011
We are pleased to announce that our Cottonwood Owls -the Great-horned pair that nested in a tree snag (a cottonwood in case you need to ask) along Wyman’s Canal – are the proud parents of three owlets. We’ve been following their situation since the first eggs were laid on that frigid final week of January. Through bouts of intense snow, bitter temperatures, and rain (not to mention sleet and the dark of night….appointed mission…etc) she has faithfully incubated her charges on their little piece of elevated ground.
While we knew that the eggs would have hatched sometime in late February/early March, the female remained tight upon them and we couldn’t tell how many were in her brood. That is until this week’s coming out party. Because they are now about a month old the owlets are big enough to keep warm without mom‘s help and they are too large to sit upon comfortably, the parents do their daytime roosting away from the nest. Up until this announcement, we believed there to be only two little ones (see dual images below). This wasn’t due to our lack of counting skills, but because the birds were very hard to see.
For a photographer standing on a stump well across from the nest, the owls can be recorded. Unfortunately you are forced to look through a thicket of vines and Phragmite tops and there are only few inches of uncluttered space to allow a shot or two. After a week of firing off a whole bunch of blurry, poorly lit, and otherwise disposable images one shot finally revealed the secret third party (see beginning photo). Photos don’t lie, right? Actually photos can and do lie all the time –especially blurry shots (remember Nessie and Sasquach), however, there is no denying that there are three blurry faces in this image.
The oldest chick is on the left, the second oldest is on the right, while the runt is the mysterious mug peering out from between them. Since owls incubate as soon as the eggs are laid, owlets always hatch out a few days apart and vary in body size. We can’t say which is a girl or a boy so we’ll simply call them Pat, Shawn, and Tony. Let’s celebrate. Candy cigars for everyone.
Pancake Ice March 28, 2011
There’s nothing better to go along with our own crop of home-made Maple Syrup than a big old bunch of pancakes. Well, to be honest we only made about a half-gallon of the stuff and that was from our single museum yard tree (see earlier blog entry re. this point). It’s very good syrup. But, using the stove-top method we produced just enough to feel all “homey” about it but not enough to get all “generous” about it.
In fact, we even turned some of this syrup into maple candy. Maple sugar, a.k.a. candy, is the traditional maple product originally produced by the Woodland Indians. Syrup needs bottling and refrigeration at some point, but maple sugar has the potential to last for a very long time in un-refrigerated conditions. The natives packed this treasured product into birch bark Makuks for use throughout the rest of the year. Our candy was poured into molds and onto greased sheets. Unfortunately it didn’t last very long (this due to the fact that it tasted so doggoned good and not due to any preservation problems).
Now, as for the pancakes. Nature provided us with some doozies last week. Flushed down from Lake St. Clair and points north, a spring crop of ice washed downriver and filled the backwaters around Sturgeon Bar Island and Lotus Bay. Because the chunks of ice were constantly grinding against each other, they created a phenomenon known as pancake ice. One look at the beginning photo and you can see why. Unfortunately these pancakes weren’t of the eating kind but we appreciated the irony just the same. Oh well, no loss, because our syrup will keep for some time in the fridge until we get the chance to whip up some real pancakes (for the staff).
It’s Not So Shad After All March 21,2011
Usually, when you see a bunch of dead fish washed up on shore or floating in the offshore debris it is a bad thing. Some man-made evil is immediately called to blame and the fingers start pointing – and rightly so. There are a few cases, however, where bunches of dead fish are the result of natural causes. This type of fish mortality, while not necessarily good, is not exactly all bad either. Take the current case of the Shad.
Our Erie shore and marshes are full of the scattered remains of hundreds of silvery fish called Gizzard Shad. These fish, so called because they possess bird-like gizzards, are closely related to the east coast shad which run up the rivers each spring (when the Shadbush bloom, as a matter of fact). Our Lake Erie shad don’t run up streams, they just die off each winter and then float up to the shore. Not exactly romantic, eh? This past winter was an especially hard one on the local shad even though they were at a population high. The combination of drastic temperature drops and an oxygen depleting layer of solid ice made for a big belly up season. Since these plankton eaters have the constitution of melted butter, they started kicking the water bucket early in the season and have continued through the season.
The good news is that many of the waterfowl and gulls on the Detroit River are enjoying this bounty of shad sushi. Even birds which are normally vegetarians, such as swans, canvasback ducks, and coots are partaking in this convenient meal. Our near shore waters are full of coots (crazy and otherwise) seeking shad. Above you can see a picture of one of our coots sans sushi (this is an old coot) and below one of our crazy coots with sushi. In other words, the birds are turning a sad situation into a shad situation.
A Very Small Sugar Bush and the March of Time Mar. 15, 2011
Many of our park interpretive centers are full into the Maple sugaring season by mid-March. Conditions are ideal and the sap is flowing freely. The Seasonal combination of freezing nights and above freezing days, along with a liberal dose of sunshine, powers the flow. Steam is now rising from the evaporator sheds and the sweet smell of winter’s end is in the air. The place where maple sugaring is performed – where there are tapped sugar or red maples and boiling “kettles” – is called a Sugar Bush. In other words, there is no shrub called a sugar bush. It is a place – and a nice one at that.
So, when we mention that we have a very small sugar bush here at Lake Erie Metropark, we mean it. We decided to tap one of our Red Maple trees and use it to demonstrate the process. The actual tree is fair sized, but the bush it represents is about as small as you can get. We’d say it was a Ma & Pa operation except that none of us will own up to being either the “Ma” or the “Pa” in question. The daily sap accumulation is collected in a vinyl bag, transferred to a five-gallon bucket, and then boiled off on our stovetop in the museum kitchen. The product is concentrated down to a pre-syrup stage until we have enough to finish off into real syrup.
It takes 60 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. This means that we will make about a pint of maple syrup by the time the trees bud out and he season comes to an end. We can’t offer this stuff to the public, so we’ll have to put it on some pancakes and serve it to Ma & Pa (whoever that turns out to be).
Time is not on our side, however, because the signs of Spring are marching (pun intended) along. Tundra Swans are passing overhead on their journey back to the high north (see above) and the female Red-winged Blackbirds are beginning to show up from the sunny south. Most of our local woodchucks are up and out. One fellow did some house cleaning and even paused to nibble on the adjacent tree (see below). Yes, soon we’ll be closing down our massive sugaring operation and switching over to hog farming (ground hogs that is).
Seeing Red March 7, 2011
Red Squirrels are the wind-up toys of the animal world. Ounce for ounce, they are one of the pluckiest and animated beasts around. They are rather small mammals, so you’d think they would be more on the timid side. But, they think nothing of verbally assaulting creatures 100 times their size.
Most of the park is Fox Squirrel territory, but we have a few scattered locations commanded by our local Reds. The individual pictured here, for instance, has claimed rights to one of our trailside Walnut trees. He is bound to duty to scold all that pass. Fortunately these up front beasts are also one of our more “visually interesting” mammals. Deer, of course, are much larger and much more up-front (to the point of being literally in your face) but they are not as brightly colored. Red Squirrels, on the other hand, are boldly colored with white bellies and a contrasting red-brown back, white eye rings, and even a dashing black nose stripe.
In winter garb, Red Squirrels put on a pair of long ear tufts and display a distinct grayish tone on the sides of their face and torso. The amount of grayness varies widely between individuals and some are nearly all gray. You may find yourself, therefore, in the confusing position of seeing a Gray Red Squirrel and wondering what to call it. But, worry not; the creature will put you in your place before you have time to think about it.
As Eagles See, So Did We Feb. 25, 2011
Black Willow Tree
A Pair of Mute Swans
Last week offered an opportunity to do our annual park flyover. With the primary purpose getting a better idea of our resources, this helicopter flight also provided an opportunity to see things from an eagle’s eye view. An aerial perspective changes everything – making the park look small and the adjacent Detroit River Mouth look very big indeed. With such a big mouth, you can bet this storied expanse of water would have a lot to say had it not been frozen over. The historic Detroit River Light, which has guarded this passage since 1885, looked very forlorn out there amid the icy expanse. A pair of Mute Swans presented an artful view when framed against this Arctic-like backdrop of shelf ice.
Detroit River Light
On the day of the flight, open leads of water close to the shore harbored large flocks of waterfowl. Hundreds of Mallards rested on the ice south of Sturgeon Bar Island. There was a lone Hooded Merganser in this group, but you’ll have to take our word for it. The island itself, now part of the park property, once sported a house and tennis court back in the 1920’s although it is now only a small fraction of its original size. The Doc Wyman’s canal system, dug back in the 1890’s, was clearly outlined as a snaky path of ice in the marsh east of the museum.
Sturgeon Bar Island
Doc Wyman's Canals
There were plenty of deer, of course, although from above they were difficult to spot. Most were bedded down in the thickets and only rose up to look at the passing craft as we flew over. Their gazes were of a curious, rather than a panicky, nature. They’ve seen plenty of big birds fly over this park but none quite as big and noisy as our whirly bird.
Do you herd what I herd?
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