Category Archives: Animals

Letter to a Pickerel

Sidney, Maine

Dear Chain Pickerel,

You were only as long as my forearm, but you fought like a hurricane. Your torpedo body whipped and strained against my line. I pulled you into my hand and you calmed. Trying to hold you was like trying to hold an eel. You had a beautiful spoonbill mouth – rounded, not sharp like the garfish or the alligator. The triple barbs of my treble hook were buried in your mouth; I’m sorry. I’m glad that were a young fish with small, backward-facing teeth that did not bury themselves into my hand. I admired your perfect camouflage; from the side and above you look like green water with irregular windowpanes of light. I worried that I had hurt you, but once I removed the hook and slid you into the water, you sulked off into the rocks and disappeared like smoke into fog.

It was nice to meet you.

Sincerely,

~David

P.S. If you enjoyed this letter, you should read John McPhee’s essay, “The Patch”.

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A classic print (1896) by S.F. Denton courtesy of The New Yorker magazine.

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Who’s in that there hole?

Outer Banks, North Carolina

In this week’s episode of “Who’s in That There Hole?” we travel to a beach on Outer Banks of North Carolina….

While walking on the beach and not paying attention to my three-year-old to make sure he didn’t swim off to Spain, I spotted a quarter-sized hole. The beach had several quarter- to baby-fist-sized holes in the sand, but no obvious occupants. I started digging in the sand, using my hand as a steam shovel. Each scoop of the cool sand got me closer to the treasure I was hunting for. When I was elbow deep in the sand, I found the treasure. Then it pinched me and skimmed across the sand like shuffleboard puck. I chased it into the water and slapped my hand down on it. It was a ghost crab, Ocypode quadrata.

Ghost crab, Ocypode, Outer Banks, NC (3)
I am the ghost crab. You can’t see me. 

The name Ocypode means ‘fast-footed’ (Ocy=fast, pod=foot, as in podiatrist). And they are fast as a lizard on a hot skillet. These cryptic crabs are found from at least Rhode Island to Brazil and are most active at night. Once, while camping in Perdido Key, Florida, a friend felt something thumping him from underneath his sleeping bag. He lifted up his bag and a large ghost crab angrily shook his claw and ran off into the night.  The ghostly carapaces of these crabs perfectly camouflaged them against the sand so that when they run it looks like a patch of the beach grew legs and ran away.

Ghost crab, Ocypode, Outer Banks, NC (2)

Ghost crabs live in single burrows above the high-tide line that are 1.5-3 foot deep (so elbow to shoulder deep for me). They are semi-terrestrial, meaning they live on relatively dry land but need to run to the water to wet their gills occasionally. A ghost crab will drown if constantly underwater. So if you find yourself on a beach between Rhode Island and Brazil and see quarter- to baby-fist-sized holes above the high-tide line, it might just be a fast-footed ghost crab.*

Ghost crab, Ocypode, Perdido Key, FL (1)

*There are other animals that burrow on the beach including rats and fiddler crabs (e.g., Uca pugilator, the sand fiddler). Fiddler crab burrows often occur in colonies with many quarter-sized holes clustered together, not in single burrows far apart from each other like ghost crabs. And fiddlers, unlike the shy ghost crabs, are showboats, the males constantly waving their oversized claws.

‘Dagger-faced goons’ murder and eat victim in broad daylight

Williamsburg, Virginia

“A gruesome scene this morning has left a leafy neighborhood in Williamsburg, Virginia, in shock after a newly emerged cicada was murdered, dismembered and eaten in broad daylight.

According to eyewitness accounts, a female Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) pulled the victim off the trunk of a tree, threw it on the ground and stabbed it repeatedly with its needle-like bill. Once the victim was dead, another wren, a male, helped the alleged killer ripped the victim to pieces and began eating it. Later, a female cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Virginia’s state bird with eyes set on savagery, joined in to help devour the victim.

“It was brutal, just brutal” said a grasshopper who witnessed the attack. “The poor guy emerged right under the bird feeder. That’s just bad luck. That’s like a gazelle being born in a lion’s den.” After pausing to look over his shoulder, the grasshopper said, “But better him than me.”

We were able to obtain an exclusive interview and confession with the alleged killer, who was taking a dirt bath under a bush. “I was going to eat bird seed from the feeder. Then I saw [the cicada] on the tree. It was the size of my head! So much meat. And delicious. Now I don’t have to spend the rest of the day foraging for insects and seeds. I can focus, instead, on removing mites from my feathers.”

Asked if she had any regrets, she said, “Only that after all my work to kill the cicada, that cardinal bullied her way in. But she only got part of the thorax and the wings. I don’t like the wings anyway. Too stringy.”  

The murder happened in the front yard of a Williamsburg resident who saw it happen outside his window. “I saw the wren pecking the ground, then saw the cicada try to fly away. She grabbed it and flipped it on its back. It was gruesome. I didn’t watch the whole thing because I didn’t want to overcook my eggs. That would have ruined my day.”

The victim was a periodical cicada (Magicicada sp.). These insects remain underground as pale grubs for 13 or 17 years then emerge from the ground as winged-adults to find a mate. They are sometimes called “17-year locusts”, which is a misnomer. Locusts are grasshoppers and cicadas are more closely related to shield bugs and assassin bugs.

The grasshopper who witnessed the murder gave perspective on the victim’s life cycle, “Nothing like waiting 17 years in an underground bunker only to be killed and eaten by dagger-faced goons when you come out.”

 

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P.S. This makes my 100th post. Thank you for following! Don’t forget to tell your friends and neighbors. But not the creepy neighbors.

 

 

 

Quest of the Tick

I sit at the end of a blade of grass under a blistering 98-degree sun. I wait. The humidity is thick. I wait. The breeze is dead. I wait.

I wait for you.

I wait all day, still as a stone. When I feel your breath, your heat or your footsteps, I throw open my front legs like a spring-loaded trap the snaps open instead of closed when triggered. I wave my legs around eager to grab you. The hooks at the ends of my legs make sure to snag your hair, your clothes, your skin.

I am the tick, and I have waited for you all day.

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What our eight-legged friend* describes above is the questing behavior of ticks. They sit at the edge of leaves or grass patiently waiting for you or your dog or a deer or a raccoon to walk by. I admire their patience and their clever behavior.

I took the photos below in my backyard after looking for black dots at the ends of grass blades and seed heads. The tick is the Lonestar tick, Amblyomma americanum. Once you know what to look for, it’s amazing, and terrifying, how many ticks you can find riding on the tips of grass blades. Even scarier is the number of ticks you can’t see.

 

*Ticks are arachnids, like spiders and scorpions and mites. They are not insects.

Wild snails of the flowerbed

Thanksgiving Day,
Williamsburg, Virginia

It’s 3:00 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day and I’m bored and slightly cold. We will eat at 4:30 P.M. I’m not sure what to do with myself so I’m sitting behind the couch using the box for the cat’s scratching pad as a mouse pad and writing a blog while my mother reads and my mother-in-law vacuums.

What to write about? Snails. A good go-to for me.

Two days ago when it was 60 F, I laid on the red-brick patio and watch a snail that I had dislodged from a planter that I moved. It had been hiding under there, probably to overwinter. But I brought it out into the open. It was nice just to watch the snail without any sort of agenda. So often in my science I’m making observations so I can scribble them down, analyze them, write a grant, get rejected by the grant, write another grant and finally give up and move on to another subject. Just like a football coach who points out the errors in the defensive line of a team he doesn’t coach, I can’t help but analyze Nature instead of just enjoying the game. My head instead asks, What species is it? How old was it? How big? How many are in the yard? What predators does it fear? But I let myself relax. I watched and I enjoyed. I watched the slide of its stomach-foot over the electric green moss that cushions the red bricks. While I didn’t take any data, I did take pictures.

And what will this snail eat for it’s Thanksgiving meal? It’s 43 F here today so it may be too cold for it to eat, but if it does feast, it will be on rotting leaves, mushrooms, and if it finds its way to my compost pile – the carcass of a Halloween pumpkin. Some meals don’t require basting. 

By the way, if you haven’t read the beautiful book The Sound of Wild Snail Eating you should. It’s a wonderfully written book about a bed-ridden woman who befriends a woodland snail.

Happy gobbling. Backyard snail (6)

Backyard snail (5)

Backyard snail (2)

Backyard snail (1)

And the spider saltated down beside her

Williamsburg, Virginia

Instead of keeping an eye on my 2-year-old son* at the playground, I watched a jumping spider walk on and jump between a pair of abandoned sandals. It was as though the spider was testing the springiness of insoles as potential launchpads for catching flies. I tried to take his picture, but the spider was shy and launched himself into the grass.

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Not the jumping spider I saw, but another found in Virginia. Jumping spiders are harmless to humans. They were also voted Most Adorable in their class (it’s their big eyes). Photo copyright Kim Hosen and courtesy of http://www.pwconserve.org/wildlife/insects/spiders/palejumpingspider.html

Jumping spiders are in the family Salticidae (sal-tis-uh-day), which sounds like a rejected day of the week. The name refers to the spider’s leaping skills. The movements of animals that jump are described as saltatorial (animals that dig – like moles – are fossorial). The word ‘saltate’ come from the Latin, saltus, which means to leap or dance. Do you saltate up and down with joy when you find one more M&M in the bag when thought they were all gone? I do, too. The saltatorial grasshopper, frog, kangaroo and jumping spider all jump and dance in the grass, the pond, the Australian outback, and on the playground sandal.

What happened to the woman who was in the sandals? Maybe a spider sat down beside her and she jumped clean out of them. And given that many of us saltate when we see a spider – regardless if it jumps or not – there may be a spider writing a blog somewhere about the ‘jumping human’ and its saltations.

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The spider sandals


*My son is fairly careful and let’s off an alarm that brings judging parents from miles around when he’s anywhere close to danger. He also still requires a hand to hold when he saltates (no M&M’s required).