Category Archives: Junebug the hound

Graupel into beech

Yesterday, on the leading edge of the snow storm, rain turned icy, pelting the woods with interesting nouns-that-should-be-verbs: rime and graupel. This bombardment made for delicious sounds, and not just on the human tongue.

Here is the percussive beat of this snowy ice falling into the marcescent leaves of a young beech (heard best with headphones):

In .wav format:

In case your browser doesn’t like .wav, the same recording, in .mp3 format:

Next morning, Junebug and I had the pleasure of making the first tracks on the snowy trails, listening to the whomp and whisper of the woods.

2014-02-13 ash shakerag snow 019

Fledgling Hooded Warbler

My ears found this one for me. I was studying a beech tree when the mother’s chup chup calls grabbed my attention. She got closer and the calls jumped into a higher register, tink tink. Surely a nest must be close by. Junebug The Hound and I saw it at the same time: not a nest but a tiny fledgling in a blueberry bush.

fledgling hooded warblerEight days ago this creature was inside an egg. Twelve days before that, the bird was just an egg and a sperm cell, yet to unite. In a couple of months this youngster will, with luck, be in the forests of the Yucatan in Mexico.

May the big raccoon that I saw up a neighboring tree find its dinner elsewhere tonight.

Unusual mating behavior alerts us to an invasion of giant slugs

A pleasant outdoor evening for Cari and Jason Reynolds was interrupted by the antics of some rather large slugs. The slugs had entwined their bodies, then suspended themselves from a stiff strand of mucus. Two large translucent structures emerged from their heads and coiled together. Sex, slug style. More precisely, sex, European slug style; American slugs have more pedestrian ways of completing their unions. For readers with sluggy, salacious turn of mind, the Ever So Strange Animal Almanac has a description (note for the bemused: some British slang involved) and David Attenborough narrates the whole process with some “marvels of nature” music playing along. Bottom line: the translucent structures were penises, exchanging sperm between two hermaphrodites.

Cari alerted the world through Facebook and I requested a closer look at these creatures. Thanks to a prompt delivery by Jason, I’m now in possession of two specimens of Limax maximus (well named, they grow to eight inches long; photos below). These are the first that I have encountered on the Cumberland Plateau. This worries me a bit, not just because the spotless innocents of Sewanee and surrounding areas are perhaps not ready for regular exposure to giant penis-dangling hermaphrodites, but because these monster slugs may be about to invade our woodlands and out-compete native species. We’re in one of the world’s epicenters of gastropod diversity, so such an invasion would be one more loss in the ongoing worldwide (and local) erosion of biological diversity. In the northeastern U. S., non-native slugs have thoroughly disrupted the local ecology. We have far more native species, so the damage here would be that much more troubling.

The species has been present in the cities of the Northeast since at least the late nineteenth century. Tyron’s Manual of Conchology published in 1885 includes a plate featuring Limax maximus (top two animals in the plate). In these more northerly areas, the slug seems to prefer to live in disturbed habitats and gardens, so it might not invade the forests here. However, our climate is more slug-friendly that that of Boston and Philadelphia; we can’t assume that the species will behave in the same way here as it does elsewhere. Stay tuned for further adventures in the biology of invasive species. Up next: Arion, an exotic slug that is ubiquitous further east, but has not yet been seen in Sewanee (to my knowledge — keep the reports coming!).

Limax maximus. Junebug for scale.

One common name is “leopard slug.”

Five inches. Three more to go. They can live for several years.

Cicada killer

Stop and listen. Every tree is occupied by buzzing cicadas. Their vigor of their acoustic attack builds through the day, then dies away after dark, giving way to katydids.

We’re not the only species to tune into this sound. Cuckoos, blue jays, and other large-billed birds will grab cicadas when they can. But the champion hunter is the cicada killer, Sphecius speciosus, a large wasp that flies up into the trees in search of its prey.
The wasp grasps a cicada then tries to jab its stinger into the weak spots on the cicada’s exoskeleton. The cicada reacts violently — fighting for its life — buzzing its wings, writhing, and rolling. Often the tussling pair fall to the ground as they struggle. The cicada tries to break free while the wasp lances with the sharp stinger on the end of the abdomen. Spear and armor clash, then resolution comes. If the cicada can free itself, it takes wing and zooms away. The wasp does not follow, having no hope of recapture. But if the wasp’s poison finds its mark, the cicada falls into a deep sleep. This is no fairytale, no prince comes to waken the sleeper; instead, the mother wasp carries her prey to an underground tunnel where she buries it, alive but paralyzed, with a wasp egg. The larval wasp will fuel its growth by consuming the cicada.

Cicada killers have been active these last several weeks. They prefer to build their tunnels in well-drained sand, so the upper portion of the Lake Cheston “beach” has numerous holes, as do other sandy areas in town.

Cicada killer with paralyzed cicada. The wasp was dragging her prey across the sand toward a burrow.

The wasp is almost as long as my thumb. They look fearsome, but don’t attack humans unless molested. Unlike yellowjackets and bees, cicada killers don’t defend their nests from intruders and can be observed at close range.

Entrance to nest burrow. The cicada pictured above was laid to “rest” here.

Cicadas are big insects and the wasps often struggle to carry them. I was swimming in Lake Cheston a few days ago when a low-flying creature — I thought at first a hummingbird — flew across the water, losing altitude as it went. When it reached the lake’s center, the flier hit the water’s surface, dropped its excess baggage and shot away. I swam out to retrieve the cargo: a cicada bobbing on the water. Back on shore, Junebug (the dog, not the insect), wanted a look. Lacking a burrow and an egg, we left the cicada to its unfortunate fate.

Some early stirrings in Shakerag Hollow

After work yesterday I headed down into Shakerag Hollow to see what was stirring at the end of the warm afternoon. It was a pleasure to walk with just a shirt on my back — discarding the wintry weight and confining clutter of jackets and gloves and fleeces and hats. Ah!

Scarlet cup fungi (Sarcoscypha sp.were fruiting in one or two places on the side of the trail. They feed on decaying plant matter and grow their striking red “cups” throughout the year, but especially in cooler months. Spores are produced from the inner surface of the cup. These blow away (or are carried on mouse feet) to colonize more dead vegetation, of which there is no shortage on the forest floor. The scarlet cup is a favorite of mine –saturated with color at a time of year when the rest of the forest is mostly muted.

Bloodroot plants were poking up their flowers. Most were still tightly closed, but one or two had cracked open a little. The deeply incised leaves are held clasped against the stem, only relaxing into an open posture when the flower is mature or dead.

I was not the only mammal out and about in the balmy woods. Junebug the Hound found this skunk, but fortunately she paid attention to my bark: leave it! The skunk had its tail arched, ready to express its opinion.

Coyotes

Harold Goldberg sent me these great photos of coyotes taken from his house in Sewanee. You can also see the photos in this week’s Messenger (I’ve held off on posting until the latest edition of the Messenger went live — no natural history scoops from me! :) )

At this time of year, coyotes are pairing up and breeding. Unlike many mammals, the male sticks around to help raise the young, as do some non-breeding pups from previous years. These family groups get very vocal when they reunite after hunting forays. I’ve heard their crazy yips and howls near our house for the last several nights – an acoustic dose of the wild. The goats and Junebug the Hound are not amused.

Coyotes have invaded our region from the Western states, partly replacing the ecological role of the wolves that used to roam here. But wolves sat atop the food chain, specializing in group hunts of large animals. As deer and forests were decimated in the wake of European arrival, the wolves disappeared, helped along by vigorous persecution. Coyotes are more flexible, eating small mammals, berries, insects, and whatever else is available and nutritious. This flexibility allows them to thrive in the fragmented, unpredictable world that we have created.

For those concerned about the abundance of deer in Sewanee, the arrival of coyotes is good news. Although they seldom take adults, coyotes do prey on fawns. For cat-lovers with outdoor pets, coyotes are cause for concern. Cats are a delicacy for most canids, including coyotes. This has some interesting ecological consequences. In California, areas with coyotes have thriving native bird populations, the result of predation by coyotes on cats (and behavioral changes in pet-owners – people are more likely to keep kitty indoors if they know that coyotes are on the prowl). This is a classic example of a “trophic cascade” in ecology – the effects of a top predator “cascade” down through the “trophic” (feeding)  levels in the system. My enemy’s predator is my friend.

Coyotes and wolves occupy interestingly different places in our cultural imagination. The wolf lives in that tense place between fear and desire (the Big Bad Wolf…ends up in bed…then slain…). Coyotes are more ambiguous. Most tales of coyotes regard them as playful, devious tricksters. These imaginings are fair reflections of ecology: the focused predator versus the jack-of-all-trades opportunist.

Listen for the trickster’s yodel…

A little jaunt in the early morning…

…down to Bridal Veil Falls, below Morgan’s Steep. Unlike yesterday when the air was warm and the spring peepers were calling, a cold front has pushed some real November chill into the woods. The frogs were silent, but a Winter Wren was singing its heart out. Surely this species is our most vigorous songster, heard only in the winter months (this video and recording from Lang Elliott and Bob McGuire is remarkable — these are not easy birds to approach).

The stream at Bridal Veils comes out of the sandstone scree, hits the limestone layer, then plunges into a pit.

Junebug was fascinated by the pit, but didn’t take the leap. There are some huge toads, snails, and slugs down there. Even in summer, the air at the bottom is moist and cool.

The big waterfall is not the only force sculpting the rock here. Limestone dissolves readily and the rocks have been shaped by years of trickles and oozes.

Even a tiny drip over the lip of a rock has cut a U into its path.