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. …