Starting off..

For some time, friends have been suggesting I start a blog, and I have finally got around to trying. I live in two wild and beautiful places: Western Maine , USA, and the Cotswolds, England.  I also travel to far-flung much wilder places.

I take photos with my trusted Panasonic Lumix, sometimes beautiful photos, more often photos that tell a story.

The blog will be erratic, depending on what catches my eye.

For my first post, from Maine, here are the tree swallows that nested in our old purple martin house and raised four young. They fledged two weeks ago.

Cruising along…
She often fed them without touching down at all
It took a while to ram this down the throat of the largest chick



Quelques Elk: Part 2

It is mating season, and the bulls that we met last time have harems of from 5-30 females each.

The one in the right foreground below had 26 females!:

The male guards them day and night, because younger ‘periphery bulls’ lurk nearby, hoping to impregnate any female that strays from the group.

The young spikes also have to be watched, just in case they get any ideas. If the seigneur perceives a threat to his sovereignty he stretches his neck out and curves his head back so his antlers touch his spine.

And other threats lurk. This periphery bull wandered away, and when I looked at my distant photos I noticed for the first time that he was not alone:

The watcher is certainly a canid, (confirmed by my guide), and probably a wolf, (though it could be a coyote). Since I never did see wolves I am going to claim this as a wolf-sighting! Elk is the preferred food of wolves in the Tetons, and they can tackle both calves, and older or weaker adults.

Bull elk make eerie calls during mating season, known as bugling. Listen here:

The result of these fall liaisons will be calves in late May to mid-June. This calf is now four months old, browsing with its mother.

When her belly is full, she lies down to digest:

They may look stiff-legged, but those hind legs can be used to scratch behind the ear:

As winter closes in, they drift southwards.

Traditionally, the Jackson herd of about 11,000 animals would have moved from the Grand Tetons to lower elevations further south. Now their way is blocked by the town of Jackson at the southern end of the valley, so to prevent winter starvation the National Elk Refuge was created over 100 years ago, in 1912. Controversially, they are given supplemental food during the winter. The migration routes for the Greater Yellowstone elk herds can be seen below: the largest magenta blob, bottom center, is the Refuge.

I am proud to live in a country that once thought to create a National Elk Refuge. Long may we continue to value such places.

Quelques Elk*: Part 1

My guide in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone was the wonderfully well-informed wildlife biologist Mark Byall of EcoTour Adventures. He was a constant source of fascinating information, and never ever boring. Thanks Mark. And Gloria and Rich (you know who you are).

The North American range of the elk is much more limited than it once was, (and Maine has never been their home), so this was my first chance to see elk.

They’re huge! A bull elk, Cervus elaphus nelsoni, can weigh over 1100 lbs and stand up to 5 ft at the shoulder (I am 5ft 3″). The most striking thing about them is of course their antlers. This one has five points on each antler:

and this one, confronting a potential rival, has six:

They don’t reach their maximum size for 9 1/2 years or so, and the record-holder had 14 points on each side. But most mature bulls are six-pointers, like my second photo above, and the one in this video, far off on a ridge and taken by Mark Byall through his spotting scope with his iPhone:

We will meet this bull again next time.

Young bulls are called spikes, for obvious reasons:

Look closely at his spikes:

They push out of the pedicles, and initially they are covered in a velvety membrane. He still has some attached to the tips of his miniature antlers. The velvet has a blood supply, and helps the antlers grow. Indeed, at this stage they will bleed if they are damaged.

This wonderful time-lapse video shows how antlers grow (it is a white-tailed deer, but the process is the same for elk, moose, or any antlered species):

They rub the velvet off on a nearby tree, leaving a scrape behind:

elk scrape

After the mating season is over, they drop their antlers. This video shows an elk just after he has lost his antlers. I suppose it feels like losing a tooth (Is there an antler fairy, I wonder?). He still behaves like the alpha male, and at the end of the video you can see it feels itchy and strange to him.

This arch in the town square in Jackson, Wyoming is made entirely of natural elk drops:

Jackson Hole’s Elk Antler Arch Tradition

In Part 2 I will introduce you to the rest of the family, and an unexpected visitor.

* My title is grammatically justifiable since ‘elk’ can be plural as well as singular! ‘Quelques’ is the plural of the French for ‘some’ and can be pronounced [kelk] or [kelk-uhz]. And you try finding another rhyme for ‘elk’. The only other one is ‘whelk’.

Assassins await

[I’m in Yellowstone, looking for wolves, and on Sunday when I usually send you a post I will be in a Wifi-free zone, so I’ve pulled out a blog I composed earlier this year and stock-piled. If I see wolves, you will of course hear all about it in the fullness of time.]

It was a dreary cold gray day on the last day of May, even the birds had slept in, so I looked more closely at the understory. The alder bushes were garlanded with iridescent alder beetles:

and on a lower leaf, an orderly matrix of tiny cylinders

with a halo of spikes like the crowns on miniature Statues of Liberty:

The spider that is eyeing them is either curious or hungry, but she is not the mother of these eggs. They are the eggs of an assassin bug, and this (a hundred feet away down by the brook) is roughly what they will grow up to be: a Pale Green Assassin Bug, Zelus luridus *, lurking on the flower spike of a False Hellebore.

Their front legs are coated with a sticky substance that helps them trap their prey.

He was lying in wait for an unwary mosquito or blackfly, or even this 3/8″ Band-winged Crane Fly, Epiphragma fasciapenne, sitting on a neighboring leaf:

Its intricate wings are too small to catch the eye in the field, but that’s why I take photos.

I watched the eggs for several weeks, and nothing seemed to change. Here they are three months later. It looks to me as though some have hatched, such as the ones at top right, but is hard to be certain.

*The eggs may be from a different species of assassin bug, I can’t be that precise.

Do Painted Turtles have teeth?

Painted turtles, Chrysemys picta, are perhaps the most-eye-catching creatures on my pond. They’re not rare: this spring there were eight on a log, basking:

One got wedged in a rotted tree stump. I was all ready to rescue it next day, but it managed to extricate itself.

There were three on a fallen tree some weeks later.

Two dived off when they saw my kayak but the smallest and youngest (and thus the most rash and least intimidated) let me get very close, so I can show you some details.

They have beautiful eyes,

with top and bottom eyelids, both closed in the next photo:

They don’t have teeth, but they do have ‘tomiodonts’ (my word of the week). Look at the center of the upper lip in the next two photos:

There are two bicuspid tooth-like things, with a notch in between.

Despite appearances, these are not teeth. Turtles have horny beaks made of keratin (think fingernails) that they use to grasp and crush food, and many species have a notch in the upper beak, flanked by two or even three tooth like tomiodonts. Their function is rather mysterious. Three explanations have been advanced. First, and most obviously, they may be useful in feeding, especially in immobilizing prey. Second, the fact that they are typically somewhat larger in males supports the idea that they may be used to immobilize the hapless females during mating. And third, they may be hangovers from some much much earlier ancestral species, and were perhaps just “spandrels”, in the sense of Stephen Jay Gould, by-products of some other evolutionarily-favored development.

And a parting wave goodbye!

PS If you’d like to know more, read Moldowan et al 2015. He was bitten by one, and it drew blood, so they are effective tools/weapons.

Which way is down??

Sometimes I find myself wondering about a phenomenon so ordinary that I had taken it for granted all my life. Mushrooms always orient themselves so that the cap is horizontal, with the spore-producing surface pointing down.

Chicken mushroom

Up to this point, I’m OK. I know that they disperse their spores by simply opening up the gills or tubes to let the spores fall down, and then the wind will catch them. And the upper surface acts to keep the spores dry, essential to their proper dispersal. But here is the question: how does the mushroom know which way is down.

Perhaps it works like in plants. The stalk goes straight up, towards the sun, and the cap just ends up horizontal, at right-angles to the stalk?? But plants have a reason to reach for the sun, they need it to photosynthesize. If they grow in the shade, they may lean sideways towards the sun, and sunflowers turn their entire flower not upwards, but at an angle to face the sun. This one had fallen over in a storm, and contorted itself around back to the sun’s rays.

Mushrooms don’t do this. The cap just faces up and the gills down. And they can grow in very dark places (although some do in fact need light and react to it.)

The urge for the cap to face down is very strong. If the stalk emerges sideways to avoid a rock or a root, it will bend upwards as soon as it can, so that the cap faces down.

Sometimes the mushroom emerges straight, and then gets knocked over by a passing creature, like a beagle (!).

But the following day it has begun to compensate:

Leccinum sp.

and in one more day it is splendidly resurgent:

This by the way is an 8 inch chunky bolete; there is an acorn at the base of the baby one, for scale.

Bracket fungi, with no stalks, grow straight out of the tree at right-angles, like these polypores on the right edge of the still-standing remnant of the trunk below:

And when the tree falls, the new growth simply rotates itself through 90 degrees so it is facing down again. It’s a little hard to explain in photos, so I’ve given you three attempts below. In each image the old fungi that grew before the fall are vertical now, seen thin edge-0n, and the new ones are horizontal.

So how DO they do it?? Remarkably, it appears that they sense gravity. Just like us. Our ears contain tiny calcium beads called otoliths (‘ear stones’), which float around and brush against tiny hairs and thus remind us of which way is up. If they get loose, our sense of gravity goes wrong and we feel dizzy. It seems that fungal cells may have a similar way of sensing gravity, so they always know which way is down. The nuclei in each cell act a little like otoliths, and the whole fungus responds.

The phenomenon is called gravitropism*, and here are two more successful examples.

If you’d like to know more, here is an excellent article.

*The shelf mushrooms that restart new versions at right angles to the previous ones are technically examples not of gravitropism, but of gravimorphogenesis, since the original doesn’t reorient itself, only the new growth is sensitive to gravity.

PS Rather wonderfully, fungi have been taken into zero gravity in space to see how this affects them. Many of them not surprisingly get too confused to form proper fruiting bodies at all!

A brown pin-striped heron? Really?

Last week I was kayaking on my marshy beaver pond, and I found a young heron standing in the scrubby shallows, watching me.

He wasn’t easy to see. In the spirit of “Where’s Waldo?” , can you find him?

He is dead center, just to the right of the bushy green trees in the center of the picture. My kayak is bottom right.

His stripy brownish plumage and all-black cap mark him as a juvenile Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias:

His wing and breast have quite distinct patterns, elegant beyond belief.

He seemed not bothered by my presence, so I gradually got quite close. Something caught his eye, and he curved his neck into the classic S-shaped pose readying himself for a strike:

It was probably a frog, a favorite food of juveniles who are not yet very good at catching fish, but it all came to naught, and I left him in peace amongst the golden leaves and red winterberries:

PS: When he is all grown up, his plumage will be quite different. The dowdy brown will fade, and those white streaks are the start of what will one day be a dramatic cascade of white plumes on his chest. Here is the same young bird the next day in a different pose, so you can see the stiff white quills (taken from the far side of the pond, so it’s a bit blurry):

And here is his future self, long neck-plumes and all:

plus a drifting fan of them across his back.

(This one was stalking around the lake in July.)

PPS: Kushlan says: “Herons usually catch prey with a Bill Stab, which is a downward or lateral strike involving fast, directed movement of the head and neck while the body remains still. This is the characteristic capture stroke of the long necked herons, which have full development of specialized neck vertebrae, the elongated sixth cervical vertebra acting as a hinge for the forward strike.”

Kushlan, J. A. 2011. The terminology of courtship, nesting, feeding and maintenance in herons. [online] http://www.HeronConservation.org

Underground Stars

One of the oddest, least plausible creatures in my Maine world is the Star-nosed Mole. Being moles, they live almost entirely underground, and the only ones I have ever seen are dead. These photos were taken this morning, after my dog spent a long time sniffing very tentatively at something unfamiliar. The mole looked peaceful, and as if it had not been dead for long, with no signs of injury.

Condylura cristata is native to the Northeastern US. It is a small grey creature, about 8 inches long, 1/3 of which is tail. Its head is at the bottom center below:

It has outsized feet with five imposing claws for digging:

But the really remarkable thing is its nose. It ends in 22 fleshy finger-like tentacles:

These are covered in sensory receptors that respond to touch and perhaps vibrations. They can each move independently and flex by 90 degrees, and they are sometimes all grouped together pointing forward, and sometimes opened up like petals. Here is a close-up, showing the 11 tentacles surrounding each nostril:

They are covered in 30,000 tactile receptors called Elmer’s organs, that contain more than 5 times the number of nerves in a human’s hands. The mole “sees” the world through these tactile receptors. The tentacles aren’t used for grasping anything, or for digging, just for feeling their world. Someone described it as the “nose that looks like a hand but acts like an eye.” (Their actual eyes are tiny, just visible in the third photo of this post.)

They tunnel underground, deep down in winter but close to the surface in summer, where the earthworms are. The tunnel pushes up the ground, as you can see in this photo, where the tunnel goes from top to bottom of the picture, across a human trail.

They sometimes break through the surface, as they did in the small round hole bottom right here:

When I was reading up for this post, I discovered to my astonishment that they are very strong swimmers. “My” mole was close to a marshy area and a stream, and apparently this is typical. Although they live on land, many of their burrows end at the water’s edge, and they eat not only earthworms but also aquatic imvetrbertaes. I would give a lot to see one swimming. They use that nose in the water to to sense their surroundings. This wonderful short video shows them foraging both underground and in the water.

It turns out other species may use the same technique, as this fluid dynamics expert explains:

They remind me of a duck-billed platypus, another implausible aquatic fur ball with a cartoon face.

PS Kenneth Catania is a leading expert on star-nosed moles, and he has written a wonderful book about both them and other unlikely creatures, called Great Adaptations. https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691195254/great-adaptations

The Little Wren*

The House Wren, Troglodytes aegon, weighs only 11 grams, or 0.35 ounces. And it is brown, so for someone like me (novice birder, terrible eyesight) they are easy to miss. I have a new app, the Merlin Bird Pro Sound ID, which is the first I have ever used that seems to really work, and the other day it told me I was listening to a House Wren. And then today, I saw one, or maybe two.

First, I saw one on top of a trellised arch in my garden, smaller than the morning glory flower behind it:

It had been raining, and it was preening:

And I think it was a juvenile, judging by the fluffy plumage.

It flew off, and a few minutes later either it or its doppelgänger emerged from the undergrowth with a huge grub:

I have no idea if it was the same one, or just possibly its mother, valiantly still feeding the recently fledged youngster. We are at the Northern edge of their breeding range, and soon they will migrate to the Southern US and Mexico for the winter.

I failed to get a recording of the House Wren song, so I’ve put in this Winter Wren, Troglodytes hiemalis, song instead, also in my garden about a week ago.

PS The North American House Wren is a different species from the wren we have in the UK, whose scientific name is Troglodytes troglodytes. Troglodytes comes from the Greek, meaning “one who creeps into holes”. House Wrens nest in cavities in trees or sometime rocks, so I think that’s the source of its scientific name.

*William Wordsworth knew this well. Here are the first few verses of his poem, A Wren’s Nest, written in 1833 (obviously about an English wren). I have bolded the key phrase that displays his knowledge of their preference for nesting in cavities.

AMONG the dwellings framed by birds 
In field or forest with nice care, 
Is none that with the little Wren’s 
In snugness may compare. 

No door the tenement requires, 
And seldom needs a laboured roof; 
Yet is it to the fiercest sun 
Impervious, and storm-proof. 

So warm, so beautiful withal, 
In perfect fitness for its aim, 
That to the Kind by special grace 
Their instinct surely came. 

And when for their abodes they seek 
An opportune recess, 
The hermit has no finer eye 
For shadowy quietness. 

These find, ‘mid ivied abbey-walls, 
A canopy in some still nook; 
Others are pent-housed by a brae 
That overhangs a brook. …

The Arrow Spider

The familiar spider’s web can be made by any of many species of orb-weaver spider. Most orb-weavers are shades of brown, grey or black, but not this one, in the Maine woods.

She waits in a hole at the center of her web. She is a female Micrathena sagittata orb weaver spider, only 8-9mm long, 1/3 inch. (The male is much smaller and more discretely colored, so it is rarely seen .)

Her abdomen is arrow-shaped (the two rear prongs are black, so they don’t immediately stand out from the background in the previous photo). She has spines at the sides and on her back, easier to see in this side shot:

She is named after Athena, the goddess of weaving, and sagittata meaning arrow-shaped, the same root as Sagittarius the Archer.

Elsewhere in the world there are other spiders with hardened abdomens with variously shaped spines. I saw this one in Koshi Tappu in Nepal three years ago.

It rejoices in the name of Hasselt’s Spiny Spider, Gasteracantha hasselti. Surprisingly , genetic analysis shows that they are not closely related to the American Micrathena, so the armored exterior seems to be an example of convergent evolution, with clear defensive advantages.

And the colors? Red and yellow often stand as a warning to would-be predators that you might be poisonous. Or they can be an enticement to potential mates, as they are thought to be in the Painted Turtle,

Or both? who knows??

Peeps in transit*

The Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla, is the smallest shorebird in the world, weighing in at 20-30 grams, a maximum of 1 oz. It is dwarfed by a nearby mallard:

I stumbled on these sandpipers on Monhegan Island, a perfect speck of land 12 miles off the coast of Maine in the North Atlantic.

Least Sandpipers breed in the sub-arctic Canadian tundra, then stop off here to recharge their batteries before embarking on a heroic nonstop transoceanic migration of 3,000 to 4,000 km to their wintering grounds in northeastern South America. 

This group of about six..

was having a morning wash and brush-up:

Notice their greenish legs, the only sandpiper with legs that color. I think these were juveniles, who migrate later than adults: by now the adults are arriving in South America.

They eat amphipods, especially the mud shrimp, Corophium volutator, which makes up to 88% of their diet in the Bay of Fundy. (Photo from Aphotomarine)

They wade around as the tide goes out, searching for these amuse-bouches:

Soon they will take off for southern climes, only to make the return journey again next spring.

* Collectively, tiny shorebirds are sometimes rather charmingly called “peeps”, hence my title.