A journey into the eyes and mind of a naturalist.

Animals

Turtle Crossing

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) belongs to an ancient lineage of turtles.  If you could take a time machine back 80 million years ago you would recognize their ancient ancestors  as nearly identical to the modern form.  Snapping turtles have filled the same ecological niche since they first diverged from other turtles millions of years ago.  They are the garbage disposals of freshwater lakes, rivers, and wetlands.  They are opportunistic feeders, eating anything plant or animal, dead or alive.  I have watched them pluck mallard ducklings from the surface of the water and had them rob a full stringer of fish.  They are good at what they do.   It is this opportunistic nature that has allowed their continued success over the last 100 million years or so.   They survived the meteor impact that took out the dinosaurs and most other complex life.  The slow metabolism and opportunistic feeding habits of snapping turtles surely allowed them to survive the apocalypse at the end of the cretaceous.IMG_1629

Snapping turtles get their name from their aggressive nature when on land.   Unlike most turtles, snapping turtles cannot retreat into their shell for protection.  The bottom of their shell, the plastron, is little more than a skid-plate offering no refuge for limbs, tail or head.  To overcome this lack of protection the snapping turtle has an enlarged head and very powerful bite.  Alligator snapping turtles have been measured with over 1500lbs per square inch in bite force.  That is more than enough pressure to sever digits or inflict severe lacerations.

Instead of hiding in their shells they simply sit and wait for the fight to come to them.  A threatened turtle on land will position itself head toward the threat, raising the rear of its shell of the ground.  Get too close and SNAP!

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Watching a snapping turtle walk it is easy to image them strolling across a beach covered in dinosaur footprints.  There is something primeval about their gait and swagger that airs a confidence that even bipedal apes can appreciate.

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Despite their legendary bite and temperament, snapping turtles are quite docile when handled.  After a couple of snaps and wiggles, a turtle in  hand simply hangs on for the ride.  I have helped dozens of snapping turtle (and other species) cross the road.   The safest way to pick up a snapping turtle is to grab the carapace (top half of the shell) just behind the hind legs.  Get a firm grip and expect some claws to try to scratch you off.  This grip will be out of range of the bite despite the turtles best efforts.

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Snapping turtles have changed very little from the time of the dinosaurs.  There have not been any significant environmental pressures to affect change and they keep on doing what they’re doing.  They serve an important role in the freshwater ecosystems of the Eastern United States.  Provided compassionate and educated humans can help them across the road and give them a place to live I’m sure they will continue to thrive for millions of years to come.

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Fawning Over Deer

Deer.  To a “country” person they are the competition; eating crops, flowers and anything else that might be tasty.  To a “city” person they are novel animal to be admired with wonder and curiosity.  Where I live, on the edge of suburbia, we have members of both camps.  We have the gardeners who support the multi-million dollar industry of deer repellents and the hunters who see a nice cut of venison.  I have seen people who live just houses away oggle at the deer as if they are some sort of rarity when they are in their yards nearly every day.

This seeming lack of awareness of the natural world is a by-product of our increasing need for convenience and the false sense of the world that comes with it.  When the world is hyper-organized down to the minute and instant gratification controls our brains we lose the ability to stop and listen, to be aware of the world around.  Many times I have watched as three or four deer stand within 25 feet of a person walking on the road, completely oblivious to the deer.  They are too preoccupied with their phone, music or simply putting one foot in front of the other.  Undoubtedly, this same person is the one who is amazed when they see DEER in the neighborhood. Awareness requires the ability to break the cycle of convenience and realize that the world is the way it is, not for our convenience, but for itself.

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I am privileged to live in a house with about 4 acres of land surrounded by suburban sprawl.  My property is an oasis for the local wildlife.  Our land has become an ideal location for the local deer herd to raise their fawns.  We have two resident does, one with twins and one with a single fawn.  We get to watch these fawns as they grow from wobbly legged infants to fool-hardy adolescents to sub-adults getting kicked out of the home range by their moms.  We regularly watch as they run laps around our yard, chasing each other as they practice the manuvers to evade predators.

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When playing the does seem just as apathetic as moms at the park on their cell phones.  They are there but don’t really seem to care what the kids are up to as long as there isn’t any screaming or crying.

 

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The doe watching the fawns play

Together these fawns grow up in a very different world than some of their relatives.  They live in an artificial world where a car is their primary predator, where food is abundant and the snow doesnt stay deep in the winter.  These deer are well fed and tolerant of humans and their habits.

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There is a never ending battle with the deer to grow any kind of flower or vegetable.  This summer has been the first time in three years we actually have hostas on our property.  The previous two year the deer have mowed them down to the ground.   They have broken our fence around the vegetable garden and decimated a crop of tomatoes, swash and broccoli.  Even with all these negative I must realize that they, like me, are just trying to survive.  I have the luxury of growing food more for recreation than neccesity while the deer, on the other hand, have winter to prepare for.

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The more I watch the deer the more I am reminded of just how good we humans have it.  How priviledge we are to take the very basic needs of life for granted.  We can complain about trivial things and never have to think about more than “what we want for dinner”.  By taking the very needs of life for granted we have lost our awareness of their importance.  We don’t think about where our water or food comes from as long as it comes.  We don’t question the strength of the wi-fi or the temperature on the thermostat as long as it’s there.  Our conviences have numbed us to the reality of the natural world.  I envy the deer and other animals for they must take nothing for granted and must have gratitude for every sunrise they get to see.

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Portrait of a Marmot

Marmots, rock chuck, whistle pig, whatever you want to call it they are the largest members of the squirrel family here in North America.  Like their close relatives the groundhog (also called a woodchuck) marmots are ground dwelling.  Unlike their close relatives, marmots live in the mountainous regions of North America.  Living in an amongst the rock slides and scree fields in and around mountains.  Marmots live in loose family groups where each member looks out for the other members.  The first sight of danger evokes a loud whistle from the look out sending the other members running for cover.  This loud alarm whistle is where the name “whistle pig” comes from.

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Marmots will graze all summer putting on weight to survive through winter.  Together with other marmots, they will sleep out the winter in a hairy ball tucked deep in the rocks in a den tunnel.

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Dirty Dancing on the Fly

Sometimes a photo opportunity may come when you are not expecting it or when it is not convenient.   I was out taking some photos of flowers for my other project and realized that the local insects had other things on their mind.

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A pair of platysomatid flies (Genus Rivellia) were performing a courtship dance on my left ring finger.  These odd looking flies are often confused for fruit flies but are their own distinct genus.   The description in my Kaufman’s Guide to Insects of North America says their “biology and life histories are essentially unknown”.  Well, I can vouch for a bit of their courtship behavior.

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The female fly leads the dance with the male fly mirroring her every step in a close formation directly behind her.  Both flies will flip their wings as the dance zigs and zags across the dancefloor, in this case, my finger.

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As the dance progresses the male closes the gap making the dance more and more intimate until…

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the female pauses for a brief moment allowing the male to mount the female and transfer sperm.  (I’m just glad my cuticles look as good as they do!)

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The actual even of mating lasted only a couple of seconds before the male released his grasp.

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As soon as the act was finished the dance picked up again and the male quickly jumped back into the rhythm of the females lead.  I can only assume the mating continued after they flew away from the voyeuristic primate with a camera pointed at them.

Take not of the little things and relish the small beauties and wonders that are, sometimes, literally on your fingertip.


Froggy Friends

Tis the season of love all around us.  Birds, insects, mammals and especially amphibians are all trying to pass on their genes to the next generation.  Male frogs call in the hopes of attracting a female to mate with, being selected based on the volume a frequency of his call.  Males will call almost continuously through the peak of the mating season, day and night.  I have seen dead frogs in ponds that, I can only assume, have literally called themselves to death.

Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)


The Northern Leopard Frog is amongst the first frogs to begin calling in the spring.  They will call at he surface or just below making a call that is very difficult to describe in words.

Green Frog (Rana clamintans)


The green frog is a large frog, second only to the bull frog in Minnesota.  The green frog is a late season caller and wraps up the mating season for amphibians around my house.  Their call sounds like plucking an out of tune banjo.  Their tadpoles will spend the entire next year underwater before emerging as young adults the following summer.

Frogs, and other amphibians, are an important of the environment, serving as predator and prey for many other species.  Unfortunately their global populations are falling as human influences to environment continue to marginalized their habitats and other needs for life.  Amphibians are an indicator species of overall health of an ecosystem.  If global populations are decreasing what does that mean for the overall health of the planet??
Photos taken on my iPhone 4S.


Death of a Chickadee

With spring comes rebirth and revitalization.  Spring is also a time of death.  All the new life requires energy.  For many animals that energy comes from the young and vulnerable.  Every year I welcome spring by watching the chickadees and other birds begin building their nests.  I have several nest boxes around my property that have yielded dozens of broods of wrens, chickadees, and bluebirds. See my post documenting a brood of chickadees here.  

This year the chickadees built their nest of hair, lichens and moss in a nest box I inherited from my grandparents.  I watched as they diligently shuttled all the nest materials into the box.  We would periodically lift the top of the box to check on the progress of the nest.  Sometimes the female would allow the minor disturbance and would not leave her incubation of 7 tiny eggs.

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All was going well until I noticed some clumps of lichen and hair outside the nest box.  My heart sank and I knew this was not good.  Opening the box I found the nest in disarray.  The eggs had been moved but were still intact.  The female was no were to be found.

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The hole to enter the nest box had evidence of recent scratching and nest material being removed.

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Directly below the nest box I found the evidence I was hoping not to find.  Evidence of predation, the right wing of a chickadee. The feathers were mangled and disheveled hallmarks of a bird predated by a salivating mammal, most likely a raccoon.  Smaller body feather littered the grass around the wing.

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All hope for the survival of the eggs had been lost.  Seven little chickadees that will never see the sun or herald in the spring with their phee-bee call.  Their mother plucked from the nest as she warmed them on a cold spring night to meet her fate in the belly of a raccoon.

When explaining this to my 5-year-old daughter it was difficult for her to process.  I could tell she wanted to be angry at the raccoon and mourned the loss of “our” chickadees.  But without the sacrifice of the chickadees, the raccoon could not feed their own young.  The raccoon knows not of right and wrong only of survival and the next opportunity for food.

Out of curiosity, I removed one of the eggs from the failed nest.

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I carefully removed the eggshell to reveal the fully formed chickadee embryo inside, probably just days from hatching. The tiny feet curled up into the fetal position

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The somber emotion of this picture defines the dichotomy of spring.  It is a time of rebirth through death.  This cycle is essential for the survival of all species. Without death, there cannot be life.


Painted

Spring fever is not limited to the human species.  Animals, plants, fungi and all the other forms of life that have been laying dormant, hibernating, or just laying low conserving energy in a torpor are also eager to get up and move around when the warm weather returns.  Among the first aquatic animals to

Among the first aquatic animals to get “spring fever” are the frogs and turtles.  Wood frogs and chorus frogs can often be heard calling while there is still ice on parts of the pond.  Painted turtles have even been observed swimming UNDER the ice.

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How do these turtles do it?  Western Painted Turtles, Chrysemys picta, is a small turtle common throughout Minnesota.  They spend the winter buried in the mud of pond where they absorb oxygen through their skin and mouth.  Some turtle species even have an oxygen transferring membrane in their cloaca (the rear end).

While I was taking a break from yard work at my sit spot one afternoon I heard some crunching leaves but couldn’t see who, or what was making the sound.  Instead of investigating I just waited it out.  The crunches got closer until a small male painted turtle came trudging over a log.  Because I didn’t move he didn’t pause and walked right over my left foot and then right under my right leg.  To him I just another obstacle between his pond of departure and his next watering hole.

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I helped him over the hill to the pond on the other side of our property in exchange for a couple of quick photos.   This time of year turtles are on the move looking to expand the gene pool and lay eggs.  All too often their journeys bring them onto roadways where they meet and untimely end.  I have stopped many, many times to escort all shapes and sizes of turtles across the road.

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Turtles are truly ancient beings they have outlived the dinosaurs and have seen tremendous change  on this planet.  They have mastered the niche that crosses both land and water.

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Up Next:  More flowers in my yard!