Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #46: view from porch

73 degrees and sunny, but smoke chokes the throat and wafts across the sky. Alabamans do love to light fires-too bad they don’t watch them.

Pam Croom © 2008

Friday, December 26, 2008

Go See the Eagles

Bald eagle numbers had dwindled in Alabama. In the Tennessee valley there were none. An effort to bring back the population was started in 1985 with the first release of young birds; the program ran through 1991. It started with four young eagles that were released from the Mud Creek Hacking tower on the Mud Creek embayment of Lake Guntersville in 1985. A total of ninety-one eagles were released in Alabama. In 2007 it was estimated that there were around one hundred nesting pairs in the state! The program exceeded anyone's wildest hopes! It started out slow with several years of unsuccessful nesting starts, but in 1991 two nests succeed in producing fledged offspring! It has been going like gangbusters since.

One of the original hacked birds, a female, nests near the Guntersville dam. She does not seem to mind the proximity to people. Her head is yellowish that is how you can identify her. Older bird's white feathers yellow with age.

There are eagles year round on Guntersville Lake. Many of the nesters stay as residents, but right now is the highest the local population will be for the year with the influx of winter migrants. The migrants are mostly from the Great Lakes regions and they will return there starting in February.

For a great opportunity to see and learn about bald eagles come to Guntersville and stop by the park. Keep an eye out for eagles all along the Tennessee River in Alabama. If you cannot get to Guntersville, Pickwick Lake is another excellent spot to see eagles.

To see the Lake Guntersville State Park's Eagle Awareness 20009 Brochure go to:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #45: view from porch

A yellow flash and a chase ensues. The maple weeps, but no yellow-bellied sapsucker finds succor-just a defensive yellow-rumped warbler.

Pam Croom © 2008

Christmas Day

I hope Christmas day has found you in good cheer. Hopefully, Santa has treated you well, because I know all of you were good little boys and girls! Santa did right by me! He brought me, via the husband after I wrote out the brand and number of it, an outdoor camera that will shoot in the infrared. Woo haa!

This afternoon, of course, was spent putting it up and testing it. Here the Stealth Cam is up, and I started trying it out...

and making adjustments...

one less sapling for America! Ah, better...

and down loading pictures...

and whoooaaa hurricane!

What I learned so far is that it takes three to four seconds after the motion detector senses motion for the camera to snap a photograph. After that it is about three seconds between shots. The camera is set in burst mode of nine photos then it waits for one minute before it starts looking for motion and photographing once again. For daylight, the motion sensor detects out to about thirty feet. So moving straight into the camera, me or a similarly paced animal (say deer), would cover almost that full thirty feet in four seconds. Therefore, I think aiming the camera straight down an animal trail will probably net me a partial of the animal coming or going and then eight animal-less photos. I would expect head on shots for bait stations to work well where animals are eating or pausing. I have a salt rock out, and there is the left over duck food to nibble so I hope I will attract some one other than myself! Stay tuned, but do not expect anything too soon for it is raining tonight! Drat it!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #44: view from front porch

From the smallest magnolia, the chipping sparrows drifted down like brown, falling leaves to the grass to search for seeds in the cold air.

Pam Croom © 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #43: view from porch

kingfisher darts, hovers, stalls, dives, and flies away to the snag piscine snack in beak. Whack, whack, against the branch goes the fish, bones broken and glug!

Pam Croom © 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #42: back yard

My customer, patiently, waits at the end of the yard by the dish for his appointed dinner: Breckenridge the beautiful.

Pam Croom © 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #41: view from the dock

Canada geese in a V formation glide through the sky reflected in the water. The birch bejeweled in drops catches the last light.

Pam Croom © 2008

What are your thoughts?

Dear Readers,
If you would please, would you express your thoughts about a couple of questions?
What is natural in the world? Where is nature or the natural world found?


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #40: soundscape from the dock

The tinkle of rain on water.
English house sparrows chatter.
Far away the wail of a siren carries over the rain.
Dim day and bright sounds.

Pam Croom © 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #39: view from the dock

Honking geese approach shrouded in the rain and fog. Splash! The sluicing sound of landing incorporeal Canada geese is heard.

Pam Croom © 2008

In a Nutshell: Alabama Supplejack

Alabama supplejack (Berchemia scandens) is easy to spot at this time of year in the bare north Alabama woods. It is a beautiful little twinning vine with lovely shaped, heavily veined leaves. These leaves are the quintessential leave-regular in shape, parallel veins, and pleasing in color. Miller and Miller in their book, Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses, quaintly call supplejack "tardily deciduous." True to their account, the supplejack around here stubbornly has hung onto its leaves refusing to believe it is deciduous despite several nights with hard frosts and temperatures in the low 20's.

The supplejack, also know as rattan vine, climbs up supports by scrambling up over trees or twining up tree trunks with its pliant vines. It prefers moist soils, but it is not unusual to find it growing on dry, dolomite glades in the Ozarks tangled across the rocks. The lianas are quite strong measuring up to three inches across, and sometimes they throttle the supporting trunk killing the tree. Many walking sticks with a natural spiral form were made by supplejack vine! The "rattan" vines have been used in making wicker in this county, and although I do not think it is being commercially used, for artisans it is a good basket material.

The flowers bloom in May and June. They are non-descript tiny, star-shaped green flowers grouped in panicles at the end of stems. Some places the vine is thick enough to be the dominant pollen used to produce a dark colored amber honey. In Louisiana it is important contributor to the honey crop. The supplejack's small flowers fruit into a syncarpous drupe with a single stone containing two seeds. It is a lovely shade of dark, concord grape-blue and is pea sized. The fruits, although not high in protein, are high in calcium. Many birds eat the fruits, but often later in winter, quail, turkeys, and ducks among them. Mammals eat the fruits too, for raccoon and grey squirrels they are tasty treats. Deer feed on the tender foliage in spring and early summer; in fact, it is a preferred food.

The supplejack in this photo is the same as in the above winter photos. Can you find it? Look in the right hand top corner.

Pam Croom © 2008

References about Supplejack:

Kurz, D. 1997. Shrub and Woody Vine of Missouri. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri

Lieux, M.H. A 1971. Melissopalynological Study of 54 Lousiana (U.S.A.) Honeys. Review of Paleobotany and Palynology. 13: 95-124

Miller, J.H. and K.V. Miller. 2005. Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife uses. rev. ed. University of Georgia Press. Athens

Radford, A.E., H.E. Ahles, C. R. Bell. 1968. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #38: view from porch

Flat light suffuses each nook and cranny, chasing shadows from their play, and stillness reigns as birds and crickets wait for rain.

WHNT-TV 19, radar

Pam Croom © 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #37: From the side yard

The Scattered brown leaves of the tall forest lie upon another verdant forest only one inch high. Dinosaur sparrows cast off leaves nearby.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The facts, just the facts, Mam!

Continued from "The Corpse in the Garage"

The Body:
total length 3 3/4 inches, body length 2 1/18 inches, tail length 5/8 inch, forefoot length 3/8 inch (without nails), hind foot length (without nails) 9/16 inch

The shrew I found in the garage was tiny, if you have never seen one, it is apparent from my measurements that they are quite small. Since his tail is only slightly longer than his back foot, he is a short-tailed shrew. In the southeast, there are several short-tailed shrews. There is the least shrew (Cryptotis parva), but they are very small and distinctly bicolor. My guy is not like that. The other short-tailed shrews are in the Blarina species. There are three or four Blarinas depending if you are a taxonomic lumper or splitter: northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda), southern short-tailed shrew (Blarina carolinensis), Elliot's short-tailed shrew (Blarina hylophaga), and Everglade short-tailed shrew (Blarina peninsulae) as a species if you are a splitter, or Blarina brevicada peninsulae as a subspecies if you are a lumper. In north Alabama, it is simplified somewhat in that only the northern and southern might be found here. Note I said, "might be." Range maps are all over the place, and the only consistency in the maps is their inconsistency. So, I do not know whether the shrew is a northern or a southern short-tailed shrew.

What are the differences between the northern and southern? Minor, and somewhat esoteric, skull differences are found and to some degree, size. The best detectable difference is chromosomal count, but as far as I can tell, there has been no comprehensive genetic study of short-tailed shrew distributions in Alabama. In "Mammalian Species," published by the American Society of Mammalogists, the southern short-tailed shrew appears to occur below the Tennessee River in this area, and the northern short-tailed shrew appears to be above the Tennessee River. So, by that, it would probably be the northern, but not so fast! "Mammalian Species'" authors report that the total length of northern short-tailed shrews as ranging from 106-126 mm in Pennsylvania to 125-141 in Nebraska. For southern short - tailed shrews, the authors give sizes in several southern states: 72-95 mm in Louisiana, 99-105 mm in South Carolina, 90-105 in Kentucky, 84-102 mm in Florida. these measurements my shrew (95mm) is a southern short-tailed shrew. To confuse it more Schwartz and Schwartz in Wild Mammals of Missouri report these total length ranges: northern 95-127 mm (3 3/4 -5 inches) and southern 72-107 mm (2 3/4- 4 1/4 inches). So you can see there is size over lap between these species. The Schwartzes, appearing to follow Brown's distributions in the south from his book, A Guide to the Mammals of the Southeastern United States, show that southerns are the only inhabitant of north Alabama. Befuddled and not amused I do not know what my poor deceased shrew’s identity.

So, not knowing what shrew it was, I thought I would consult the authorities, and I whipped off an email to the Anniston Museum of Natural History:

“I am trying to find out what short-tailed shrews live in north Alabama. Range maps I've found are contradictory; some report the northern and some report the southern short-tailed shrew, but none report overlap in ranges.”

I promptly received an answer back from Dr. D. Spaulding, Curator of Collections. He sent me an Alabama mammalian land species list and neatly side stepped the question:

“I have attached a list of all the Land Mammals of Alabama. We have 4 species of shrews in Alabama.”

His answer or lack of answer tells me volumes...that there is probably not a definitive answer without genetic studies. So I do not know what kind of short-tailed shrew it is (I’m leaning to southern, but what do I know).

Next, what is its gender? I've been calling it a he, but I really do not know its gender. These shrews do not have an external scrotum as the testes are housed internally in the body, a primitive feature. The birth canal of the female is not a separate external opening. A shrew is a primitive mammal and has a cloaca, the external opening, into which the urinary, intestinal, and reproductive tracts empty. So there is no obvious external gender difference. There are minor size differences reported between males and females, but that is relative and not a definitive marker.

So what do I know? The shrew is small, it is either a northern or southern short-tailed shrew, its gender is unknown, and it died from undetermined causes. I would make a poor policewoman! I am not the only one lacking the facts, science know very little about these shrews. Their semi-fossorial (semi-burrowing) lifestyle along with that they do not reliably enter into traps makes them difficult to study.

Why care about a small mammal such as the shrew that you may never see, well...Jackson in his book Mammals of Wisconsin did the math:

Assuming that each individual consumes an average of about one-third its own weight each day (eight grams), the army of 84 million mole shrews [his name for short-tailed shrews] in Wisconsin consumes more than 500 million tons of pests annually, and equivalent of two big truck loads a day for each county in the state. If we assume that each Blarina averages less than three invertebrates (insects, snails) a day and less than two mice a year then numbers consumed would reach the almost unbelievable, yet not unlikely, number of 90 billion invertebrates and 150 million mice...The mole shrew must be accepted in the class of mammals as a very useful ally to man.

Just think, without shrews in your yard you might be overrun with roly-polys!

Later what is known of the cool natural history of short-tailed shrews...

Pam Croom © 2008

References used in "The Corpse in the Garage" and "The Facts, Just the Facts, Mam"

Brown, L.N. 1997. A Guide to the Mammals of the Southeastern United States. The University of Tennessee Press. Knoxville. 236pp.

Chapman, S. 1990. The Natural History of Shrews. The Natural History of Mammals Series. Comstock Pub. Assoc. Cornell University Press. Ithaca. NY. 178pp.

Choate, J.R., J.K. Jones, Jr., and C Jones. 1994. Handbook of Mammals of the South-Central States. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. 300pp.

Fry, B. G., The Poisonous Primate?!, accessed 12/3/08

George, S.B., J.R. Choate, and H.H.Genoways. 1986. Mammalian Species. 261: 1-9

Jackson, H.H.T. 1961. Mammals of Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin Press. Madison. 504pp.

McCay, T.S. 2001. Blarina carolinensis. Mammalian Species. 673: 1-7

Pepling, R. S. 2004. Critter Chemistry: The Stunning Saliva Of Shrews, Researchers are trying to unravel the mystery of the shrew's venomous brew. Chemical & Engineering News. accessed 12/3/2008

Schwartz, C.W. and E.R. Schwartz. 2001. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. University of Missouri Press. Columbia. 2nd re. ed. 368pp.

Bonta-Nature-Gram #36: view down the hill from the front yard

Piercing the dull gray clouds, a brilliant golden beam illuminates the beaver swamp. In the gloom, a robin and mockingbird shrilly fight.

Pam Croom © 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #35: view from porch

A sherbet moon rises in the east over the brimming lake. In the ash, the first snow bird of the season eyes the feeder for a bedtime treat.

Pam Croom © 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #34: view from porch

Cold rain on the way to the lake puddles then turns into ponds fed by rushing rivulets in what was once the yard.

Pam Croom © 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #33: view from porch

The mountain obscured by rain. The sky and ground muffled except for the occasional English house sparrow chirp can be heard from the bush.

Pam Croom © 2008

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #32: view from porch

The visiting shoveller, an apparition in green, chestnut, and white, with his neck extended he shovels his way in circles around the lake.

Pam Croom © 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Corpse in the Garage

“Looking askance at the black blob on the garage floor, I simply could not imagine what dark colored thing the cats could have urped-up. Standing over it, the blob resolved into a small still body, the little corpse was that of a shrew, an unlikely find in a garage-a mouse highly likely-but a shrew no. I smoothed the dark fur then picked up the sad little body turning it over inspecting the stiff and cold body the only apparent injury its poor little bloodied nose. It seemed unlikely a shrew, somewhat fossorial in habit, would voluntarily venture across such a vast plain of concrete drive only to enter a garage containing a dreaded nemesis's litter boxes. I am not sure, if it crept in injured and died or my cats did it in, but my best guess is that one of the two calicos roaming the yard caught the poor creature and was playing with it on the drive when it slipped under the garage door to escape it tormentor and died in its retreat. The idea that the pugnacious little shrew encountered my naive indoor kitties was amusing; I imagined them corned by the fearless little hunter, but I would never know for sure.


My first encounters with short-tailed shrews was in childhood when my cat, Sassafras, from somewhere beyond the barn, would catch them and then bring them to the short grass of the yard where she could easily keep track of the fleeing creatures. Sassy’s erstwhile quarry-turned-toy first was hurled to great heights then expertly pinned to the ground, but shrewdly, her prey slipped the bounds of the velvet paws squeaking and turning the miniscule gladiator fought back, clearly, she enjoyed the shrew’s tenacious fighting verve. By and by, the more durable ones she would let escape to the tall grass or those less fortunate would die from their battle wounds, but she never ate the remains she would simply nudge the corpse gently and lay her head down on her paws waiting for her playmate return to life. I always took these opportunities to inspect these mites, and despite my status as a giant, I always jumped when they lunged at me. My city-raised mother inexplicably knew that these creatures were the poisonous short - tailed shrews, and why she thought that telling me they were poisonous would make me leave them alone I do not know as it only served to pique my interest for I found them as compelling as my cat did. In the time intervening childhood and now, I learned more about these little underdogs in books, but only in my childhood yard, did I learn and come to appreciate the bravery and bravado of this miniscule predator.

As I mentioned these shrews are poisonous, which makes them mammalian curiosities. Poison is not an uncommon strategy of the hunt or defense in nature, but it is unusual in mammals. The list of mammals that produce toxins is rather short: the North American short-tailed shrews, Eurasian water shrew, solenodons, slow lorises, and male platypus.

The platypus is that down-under monotreme curiosity that looks like it is made up of one part duck and two parts beaver. In the platypuses, only the male platypus has a calcaneus spur located on its hind leg, and as the male only has the spur, it seems the spur must play a part in reproduction like males fighting.

The slow loris, a big-eyed cute primitive primate or prosimian, is found in Southeast Asia. Loris’s poison is secreted from a sebaceous gland located at the elbow and taken into its mouth by a small comb tooth that directs the toxin into bite wound or (and more interestingly) the toxin is combed through the fur of the baby possibly making it repellent to predators. A couple of interesting things about the loris’ poison is that straight from the gland other chemicals from that gland interfere with the poison but mix it with saliva and it becomes noxious and poisonous (to some degree), and the other interesting thing is the toxic protein is similar to the allergenic protein in cat dander. For those of you who are allergic to cats and feel that the cats are out to get you-well they might just be with their toxic proteins!

Solenodons are found in Cuba and the Isle of Hispaniola and are a distant relative of the shrew, and in fact, resemble the shrew, well if a shrew was crossed with a opossum. The solenodon’s second incisors are grooved thus giving the poisonous saliva a channel to flow through when the prey is bitten. The poison is produced in glands at the base of the incisors.

Shrews secrete a poison from the submaxillary saliva glands at the base of their lower incisors. The shrew does not actively inject the poison, but it flows by capillary motion and is delivered by the bite. A short-tailed shrew’s saliva contains a neurotoxin, which may aid the shrew in killing prey larger than itself, but more interestingly as a way to stock and keep a larder full of “fresh” food. Only the northern short-tailed shrews’ poison has been confirmed by an arduous chemical analysis, but it is likely the other three short-tailed shrews, the southern, Elliot’s, the Everglades, as well have injurious spit. The shrew toxin has been isolated, reproduced, and therefore patented. As it is a paralytic, it is being explored for its medical potentials like relaxing wrinkles!

“Madame, for your facial would you prefer a deadly bacterial toxin or shrew spit?” Ahhhh…the cost of beauty!

To Be Continued...

Pam Croom © 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #31: from the backyard shore

She wades in shallows amongst the sedge looking for a meal, stunning and elegantly feathered, the great blue heron lives up to her name.

Pam Croom © 2008

Thanksgiving and Sanctuary

After unseasonably cold weather, Thanksgiving Day turned balmy with the temperature reaching sixty-four degrees with expansive blue, sunny skies. The day was a perfect day to build-up our hunger for the coming feast with a long walk at the Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary’s lowland forest embraces beaver swamps, streams, and cornfields long ago harvested but still scattered with corn for the wildlife to forage. Passing Jobala pond we crossed the stream on the footbridge to take the trail along the narrow tupelo and buttonbush border between the fields then skirt along a cornfield to enter the grandmother tupelo pond. The majestic ancient tupelos stood with their massive swollen trunks, many furred with resurrection ferns, and floating in the dark water surrounding at the foot of trees were the dark drupe-like fruit-the next generation of magnificent trees. Beyond the tupelos the oaks, hickories, and maples closed hardwood ranks with most of their leaves covering the ground perfuming the air with that nose tingling smell of tannins. If sound came with an odorama experience then the sound crunch would be that sharp acidity smell of the oak-hickory hardwood forest!

Above the forest reeled two red-shouldered hawks and somewhere below in the canopy a plaintive wail that translated in any species’ language, “feed me!” Their offspring was having a hard time cutting the apron strings, he found feeding himself a tough road to hoe, and reverted to begging from his parents who ignored his cries, of course, even if they had wanted to the hunting in the area had been ruined by his all-alarm cry. Further along, a turkey flock scratched for its repast, at first, they were rather tolerant of our presence, but finally they trotted off. From the lower story of the trees flew out a large hawk, he had been sitting above the turkeys and followed them beyond sight into the trees. From his size I guessed he was a red-tailed hawk, a hunter of open areas not the deep forest, and equally odd to find one above turkeys who blithely ignored his presence. I normally would have noted this as odd and memorable, but it was a case of déjà vu, I had been through this before when a few weeks before the same scenario played out with same flock that patrols the forest near the river, and now what was memorable was now very interesting. The hawk trailing the turkeys through the woods might be coincidence, but it just might be purposeful, which opens interesting possibilities and questions. What did the hawk get out it? What did the turkeys get out of it? Following the turkeys might be lucrative for the hawk as they forage the turkeys inevitably scatter rodents that shelter below the leave litter providing the hawk with a tasty treat. Do they tolerate him swooping down? Do the turkeys get anything out it? What could they get out of it? Tantalizing, as it appears it may all be coincidence, but I will have to try to trail the flock one day and see if he shows up.

Besides turkeys the woods abounded with blue jays, cardinals, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers, assorted nuthatches and sparrows, but as we passed from the oak-hickory forest into the open park-like beech forest the birds were more scarce without their protective understory trees and thickets. Amongst the lianas along the river the robins massed taking turns bathing in the shallows below to return to the vines flapping their wings to dry in the warm sun. The beech forest glowed with light bouncing off golden brown leaves on the ground and still on branches above, and the scent of the oak-hickories was noticeably absent. The floor here was visibly less colorful than multihued oak-hickory forest floor. This open beech park was more quiet, perhaps the large spaces between the trees allowed the sound of footfalls to travel away from the ear and not bounce back or perhaps the monotypic leaf litter allowed the same shaped leaves fit together making a silent treading mat. The Flint River bordered this tall wood and as the clear water made its passage out of the beech wood it sounded out in resonant, melodic, tumbling tones.

Leaving the beech wood we traveled onward to the bottomland cornfield, here the pliable soil was rich with organics and sand that held the shape of the feet that had trodden it. In the sandy soil was the obvious sign that many animals had passed before us in the last few days since the rain last washed the field’s slate clean. There for us to behold were the tracks of deer, turkeys, raccoon, feral hogs, and coyote, but noticeably absent were bobcat and fox, but perhaps those prints lurked further out in the corn stubble. Beyond the cornfield the afternoon sun soon caressed the treetops signaling the time had come to go home and eat. In the waning afternoon we left the birds and animals to themselves and their own thanksgivings for such a lovely sanctuary to live in.

Pam Croom #&169; 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #30: From the backyard dock

Autumnal detritus litters the shallows. Burgundy and tan leaves entwine pine needles, jetsam from shore-bound trees, what pretty trash.

Pam Croom © 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bonta Naturegram #29: from the back porch

Bathed in golden afternoon light the leafless willows expose a brown leafy squirrel dray in one tree and a green mistletoe ball in a second.

 can you find the dray and mistletoe?

Pam Croom © 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Just a thought...

The goal of life is living in agreement with nature. -Zeno

Birdie Brouhaha

A birdie brouhaha was on, and the small birds were on high alert; the mocking birds, cardinals, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers, chickadees, even the nuthatches were involved. Birds flew in and out of the bamboo thicket screaming intense alarm calls. There were no eggs or young for the birds to protect this late into autumn so what could bring that kind of response across the species line? With that much fussing I could not resist investigating its cause. The most dangerous predator to small birds are other birds, although I once witnessed a rousing mobbing of a large northern water snake that was wrapped around a tree, but that was during breeding season and the potential of a snake robbing eggs and chicks was a serious threat. I doubted a sane snake would be up the bamboo on a blustery, cool, fall day. I slipped up to the bamboo thicket’s edge, and the birds took little notice of me continuing to dive in and out of the still green bamboo. Ten minutes earlier a red-shouldered hawk leisurely flapped off when I unknowingly walked too close, and it seemed unlikely he would come back so soon with me still there. The cheeky cooper's hawk would have sneaked back and swooped over my head just for kicks, but I have no relationship with the red-shouldered, he is new to the neighborhood.

I saw no fur or feather floating down to the ground so whatever was there had not captured anyone and lunched on the unfortunate, and it seemed unlikely that these small birds would be so bold towards an unoccupied hawk. A hawk, tolerant of me, with a meal too heavy to fly easily with would stay for a while, but there were limits, and clearly, there was no meal, and no reason not to fly least for a hawk. The largest bird there was a mockingbird, and although vocal, they usually are not too physically aggressive towards predators. Blue jays, absent today, will strike at enemies seemingly just for the joy of a fight, but not mockingbirds. The jays are sometimes a threat to the small bird's eggs and offspring so they do not necessarily buddy around together, but a real predator like a falcon or hawk makes all the song and small birds bedfellows and temporary allies! That the blue jays felt no need to join in was interesting, and whatever was there was not much of a threat to the jays and probably not much of a threat to the small birds either.

The would-be-predator must have shifted for the little birds dove and squealed more wildly than before. I tried to see a bit better and stuck my head into the thicket looking up, hoping to see a break in the leaves, but the leaves were too dense to see anything but green. The fuss ended as quickly as it began for the mystery predator had flown off leaving me standing there flummoxed. It was unfair, I did not have a bird's eye view to see the threat, and I did not even hear it fly away! I...did not ...even fly away...hey! Standing that close I would have heard a hawk take off, it then hit me it was an owl: a silent flier. Not a large owl, I would have seen that in the thicket, but a small owl like a screech owl. A screech also explains why it did not fly off immediately when I arrived at the thicket as screeches often freeze and blend in when they feel threatened. Different predators often receive different mobbing responses from birds; a cat strolling across an open lawn evokes a small response whereas an outed sharp shinned hawk elicits an all alarm-defcon 10 reaction. Today's mobbing was inline with screech owl mobbings I had seen before. Some times seeing animals requires more than eyes. The predator left no print, no feather, or fur, and there is no way to know what it was without a doubt, but I am pretty sure it was a screech owl.

As I have mentioned, I have seen small birds do this before with screech owls, but a sleeping owl is no threat, and a wakeful screech owl is only a small threat to the birds. Screeches mostly eat mice and insects, but as winter approaches and insects die off screeches will hunt birds more often when the opportunity arises. A screech dozing might have a better opportunity to see where birds roosts, but I am not sure that really increases hunting success. A mobbing like this takes a lot of energy, burn energy unwisely and you might die on a cold night so the birds should not be doing this just for kicks. Why such an all out response to a sleeping bird who is not an immediate threat? I do not know this for sure, but I think it creates a neighborhood bond. As the cold increases, food gets scarce the birds will be foraging in more exposed areas, and the more eyes watching for predators the better, even the ones who are competing with you for dinner. In summer, offspring were at stake and birds of many species mobbed together keeping the neighborhood save for my young keeps it safe for your young sort of alliance. But those alliances wane with the flight of the young, birds migrating south, and new winter migrants additions to the hood. I think mobbing a relatively safe predator establishes winter neighborhood bonds, and gives these birds a chance to practice the skill together, kind of like a fire drill and meet the new neighbors party- it is probably kind of fun too!

Pam Croom © 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #28: From the back porch.

The blue bird suns above the roofline. The northward anemone blooms a last pink blossom below the tree, not to feel the sun till next spring.

Pam Croom © 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bonata-Nature-Gram #27: From the back porch

Fog secures the mountain from view. Light muted filters across the still lake. The heron flies, fading into the milky glow. "Gronk!"

Pam Croom © 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Long Shadows

This is the time of long shadows when autumn hangs from the precipice about to lose her hold and fall, and then winter will quietly slip into her place. On the mountain, the low and midlevel trees’ colors are at peak beauty, but the ridge-top forest’s leaves have already dropped. The insects have been through all their instars, mated, left their eggs to winter embrace, and then died, their genetic fate tenuous in the grip of chance. The katydids and conehead grasshoppers sing no more, leaving the quieter tree and field crickets to sing to the passing seasons until their fair-weather kin return. In spite of the insects' decline, the orb weaver on the porch stubbornly hangs on repairing her web every evening in hope of a meal. Autumn’s fruits and nuts, a convenient larder for birds and mammals, are everywhere like the beautyberries usually fed upon by grosbeak pilgrims, but this fall wereleft for others when the birds failed to appear at bounty’s table. The deer now pluck the vivid purple berries, and prune the delicate twig tips. 

The poke and dogwood berries will feed the odd remaining migrant, and the swelling population of winter residents. Back in October, in the willow I saw a yellow flash of wings and the yellow flash of fanning tails the telltale tic of redstarts. As daylight waned, they dove into arbor vitae for a well-deserved migratory rest. Nowadays, those colorful migrants are just memories of warm days past, and the white-throated and song sparrows’ songs fill the void left by summer nesters and passing migrants. Feeders wait the arrival of snowbirds, winter’s harbingers. Frosted open spaces hint at the winter to come, but still clinging to the small frost-free patches below blazing trees autumn remains.

Pam Croom ©: 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bonta-Nature Gram #26: From the back porch.

Tree crickets' steady melody twines the periodic thrum of field crickets. Absent is the song of katydids and coneheads. Autumn marches on.

Pam Croom © 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bonta-Nature Gram #25: From the Bridge of Lake Guntersville

Cormorants wings spread, catch the last heat of the sun. Gulls on pilings don't care and are already hunkered down for a cool night.

Pam Croom © 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #24: lake from back yard

Mallards gorge on hen-scratch, crops almost bursting. The great blue heron looses her cool and frantically stabs at fish. Cold is a coming.

Pam Croom © 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #23: my back yard

Wrens and sparrows tussle for a roost. Peace accords made. Silence falls over the lake as civil twilight flees; the first chill blows in.

Pam Croom © 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #22: In the backyard

"Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada," the white-throated sparrow has returned! The longed for song again haunts the wood.

Pam Croom © 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram# 21: Morning from back porch

Silver color dew coats the grass and fingers of fog rise on the water. Soon all of it is dispersed by the crystal clear light of morning.

Pam Croom © 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #20: Sky view

Beams of light reflect upon a distant volcano's spewed dust. From tiny particles a flaming sunset sets on the water.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #19: In my backyard

Turning stones, my wren and thrasher shadows watch, just a few feet away, hoping for tidbits.

Pam Croom © 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #18: view on Lake Guntersville

Cloud filled sky the coots stay in the harbor. Catspaws lace the waves and the sky opens, sun shine and birds fly.

Pam Croom © 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #17: View from afternoon sailing on Lake Guntersville

Three feet away, the tern on the buoy looks at me in disbelief. He takes wing and squeaks at me like a rusty screen door. Jibe-ho birdy!

Pam Croom © 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #16:

A bumblebee clings to the screen door. Her Abdomen pumps air in and out; her fuzzy legs black and bereft of pollen. Why is she there?

Pam Croom © 2008

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bonta-nature-gram #15: From the porch

Branches bob, leaves quiver as shadows weave in the bush. No bird in hand or sight, but two temptingly keep out of view in the bush.

Pam Croom © 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram # 14: Happenings in the back yard

Sorry, I am behind I forgot to post this last night:

Gyrating in the birch a lakeside catbird jeers. The cause spotted-my queued edgy duck public-I feed them, and all is quiet on the lakefront.

Pam Croom © 2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #13: view from on water at Guntersville Lake

Light approaching sunset is colorless illuminating everything with amazing clarity. Heavy bomber bodied cormorants lift and fly to roosts.

Pam Croom © 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #12: Out the front window

Female orchard orioles and summer tanagers weave in and out of the sycamore. An absence begs the eternal question: where are the men?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bonta-nature-gram # 11: view of yard

Orb weaver sitting like a fat jewel in her web dines on katydid while the kingfisher flashes, dives and misses his dinner.

Pam Croom © 2008

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #10: From the Porch

Pines yellow green in the low evening light. Canada geese, hordes swim into the light.

Pam Croom © 2008

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #9

Washed fresh by morning rains, the clear night air spills over and swells with tree cricket and katydid song.

Pam Croom © 2008

Elvis Has Left the Building

It was an overcast morning (23 September), and I could not be sure in the low light what I was seeing so I grabbed the binoculars to check. The day had come; I had been expecting it for a few days. The duck food pan still had food in it; Apple was gone. The pan was not totally full so they had eaten last night, but Apple had not returned before daybreak. The fawn had finally followed his mother off, or she had decided it was time and kept him with her. Apple’s tracks had been ranging farther and farther. He was taking on more and more of the habits of his mother becoming more crepuscular in nature. Beautiful little Apple is growing up and is out in the world at his five week birthday!

Why leave at this time? I do not know. May be the visit from Quince and dark doe unsettled Apple’s mommy and she took him elsewhere. Perhaps the visit tugged at the need for a herd, and they rejoined the other does. Perhaps Apple made his own mind up and stayed with his mom. They have been back since to eat, lick at the salt, and drink from the lake, and Quince and dark doe have been back too-I have seen their tracks. I cannot tell if all four deer are coming to the lake together-I cannot distinguish if the track sets were made at the same time or hours apart. Some days it is just Apple and his mommy other days the tracks includes Quince and dark doe.

The imaginary sign hanging over the backyard that read, “SSSHHH fawn sleeping!” is gone. The backyard now is mowed, I can go about making noise with impunity, and I can go where I want without fear of disturbing Apple. Yet, as I occupy the yard fully it now feels so empty. Apple is growing up and all is as it should be…bon chance, mon ami.

Pam Croom © 2008

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #8: From the back porch

The lake's surface is muted by rain. The birds and snow crickets shelter silent in the soft wet evening air.

When an Apple is a Quince!

Late Sunday morning (21st of September), Joe bursts into the room, “Come quick!” This is short hand for there is an animal outside that you need to see. We run to closest window in the bathroom and look out the small window. There in the shadows by the pines is Apple. He strolls a bit and then stops dead with his ears twitching all about. His mommy walks out calmly and stands behind him. Whatever has spooked Apple is of no concern to his mommy. Apple crouches a little and stretches out his neck. His skin is just crawling. The calico has been about the yard of late, and I think that Apple is shortly to meet his first cat. Something much larger than a cat springs out of the touch-me-not screen and rockets past Apple. He spins and takes out after it.

“IT’S ANOTHER FAWN!” I exclaim.

“Did you know there were two?” Joe asks.

“No…because there aren’t two fawns back there. There is no way that there was another fawn that I didn’t know about!”

The two fawns come to a stop, and I blurt out, “Look, there wasn’t another fawn because they aren’t siblings! That fawn is smaller; it is a good week and a half to two weeks younger than Apple.” The new fawn is quickly named Quince, keeping the name in the rose family. Quince is clearly in control bucking and pronking, and leaving Apple behind to eat her dust. She may be small but she is spunky!

“Is there another deer?”

“Must be, she’s probably in the thicket, because it is very unlikely that Apple’s mommy would have adopted an orphan.”

Apple’s mommy slips back behind the touch-me-not to rest in the lay by there behind the flowers. Apple and Quince follow. I watch a while longer, and I am rewarded for my patience. Quince burst through the bright yellow butterflies feeding on the touch-me-nots. The pretty little fawn and the butterflies caught up in her leap are airborne in a carefree dance! Such a sight, the little fawn circling in the lawn her absolute joy uncontainable, the delight of unfetter play translates across species and I giggle for both of us. The youngster finally runs for cover, called back softly by her mother softly in a voice way beyond my hearing from inside the house.

I know that they are resting and hiding, but I cannot help but be drawn back to the window hoping to catch a glimpse once again of such delightful exuberance. Lo and behold, I notice a silhouette by the sweet gum. Is it Apple? Too big. Oh! It is Quince’s mommy. The doe steps out into the pines. She is smaller and more delicate than Apple’s mom is. Her fur is tawny darkening into an almost black back. The beautiful dark doe gingerly strolls beneath the pines and Quince quickly follows running circles around her. Dark doe takes a few running steps caught up in her offspring’s gamboling play. She walks on, but as she passes from protective shade to the exposure of sunlight, she becomes very alert and cautious. The relaxed deer of seconds earlier is gone. Her ears swivel listening, she takes a couple steps pauses, looks, listens. Quince darts about the yard pausing a moment to take a quick lick at the salt rock. Dark doe slowly stalks on; she looks behind her and calls out to Quince to close rank. They pause at the bottom of the yard looking down the narrow strip before the lake there behind the neighbor’s fence. She makes her move crouching slightly, and the two trot off out of sight.

Quince seemed a bit too young to be moved, but perhaps something disturbed them. Whatever it was, it must have been very threatening for the doe to move her baby in the middle of the day! Apple’s mommy was probably not ready to join other deer yet. Clearly, Apple’s mommy is not the lowest stature doe in the herd since it is Quince’s mommy who left the thicket. Apple’s mom obviously did not tolerate her there with Apple yet. May be dark doe is Apple’s older sister. Young does often give birth near their mother’s fawning ground. Her inexperience was obvious since she was moving a small fawn abroad so much during daylight; also, that she is so much smaller than Apple’s mommy may illustrate her youth.

I glanced out the window again, really not expecting to see any more, when they came back. Dark doe so very nervous making her way step, step, pause across the yard. Quince absolutely confident and fearless, in the wake of her mommy, fools around as they progress. Dark doe pauses before the bird feeders a few yards from the house. It was that classic deer pose of one front foot raised, ears forward, and eyes bright looking to see if it is safe. I reach for the binoculars that hang by the kitchen window to get a better look (sorry-I never think to grab the camera). She is truly a fine looking doe. They pass by the house in that hesitating walk and leave the yard. I wish them luck.

An Apple and a Quince not a bad harvest for such a small yard!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bonta-nature-gram #7: from the porch

Wind soughs through wires that massacre migrants, but holds up the tower that transmits messages of love, indifference, and bring home milk.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bonta-nature-gram #6: From Guntersville Lake

The coot flock's dits and dahs telegraph like chatter drifts on the breeze and catches in my sail.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bonta-nature-gram #5: from the back porch

The great blue heron's neck coil and springs at shadows in the shadow of the willow.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bonta-nature-gram #4: View from the yard

Webs festooned with small webworms bespeak the parting of the yard cuckoo for winter digs.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bonta-Nature-Gram #3 from the back porch

Sitting on the feeder a redwing warrior showing only the coward's yellow epaulets as two pennant-tailed blue jays fly in formation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bonta-nature-gram #2: from thicket

Soft, buff, feather pile is a mourning dove’s last lament. Yellow jackets tumble over meaty morsels dropped by the now absent diner.


The ducks’ hen-scratch tinkled into the dish as my eye just caught a wing tip swing by in the sky. A vulture? No, whoa! My head snapped skyward; I had seen before that wing turned down, ever so slightly, at the wrist! It was an osprey, a very unlikely sight over our lake. He lazily circled the lake, and then dove, half-heartedly, at a fish. He pulled up with empty talons dangling behind him, and lighting ever so carefully in a pine he settled in for the night. He must have been a migrant pushing south. Probably full from hunting in other lakes or rivers, dinner seemed not to be on his mind. He was now more interested in finding a perch for the night which would offer a vantage to spy breakfast in the morning.

His wing tip reminded me of another osprey wing tip I spied once when I was descending a curvy road to Saltville, Virginia. A narrow wrist caught my eye as the owner ascended on the thermals over the wellfields. I was stunned to see an osprey so far from the sea or a large lake. He seemed so out of place to me, but to him, he was right at home. Saltville, aptly named, nestled in the ridge and valley area of Virginia is the site of a brine spring that flows through a few ponds or as they called, the wellfields. The wellfields are one of the few inland salt marshes in North America. The wellfields range from very salty to barely salty like most salt marshes. Ducks and other birds brought seeds from the seashore in on their feathers and halophytic plants colonized this saltwater refugium. The most gorgeous swamp mallows and deposits of reddish salt-like rock ring the wellfields. And the snails! There are the most beautiful, stripped, large, land snails to be found all around the water.

The salt has attracted critters from Pleistocene mega fauna to present day critters. People, probably attracted to animals first and salt second, showed up about 14,000 years ago. The Spanish came through the area followed later by English colonists. The salt works provided the Confederacy with two thirds of its salt. Salt was so important the North attacked and destroyed the salt works.

The salt marsh has been damaged and reduced by human exploitation of salt and grazing, but a remnant marsh remains. If you are ever in the toe of Virginia, do visit this extremely rare salty refugium.

Pam Croom © 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inspired theft

I've been reading Dave Bonta's microblog "The Morning Porch" at Let me quote Mr. Bonta as to what his subject is, "The view and soundscape from my front porch first thing in the morning, in 140 characters or less."

He writes these wonderful,poetical, snippets of the landscape. Please go and see his writing. The impending act of committing those few characters to page seems to focus the world. Such close observation of the world but with the observer so present, not detached,is wonderful. Mr Bonta arrived at 140 characters from inspiration he got from twitter's 140 character limit.

I have been inspired by his writing; so inspired I am going to steal his idea. It seems such a wonderful practice to sharpen one's eyes and mind. O.K., one deviation, may be not at the crack of dawn since I'm do not particularly observe anything then, but more than likely it will be evening for my observations. My apologies in advance to Mr. Bonta for my poor approximations and deficient prose, I did not say I was a good thief.

So here goes my first Bonta-nature-gram from my back porch:

Last golden rays spill over the hillcrest. Dark cat's paws ripple the lake as yellow butterflies beat the breeze tumble from touch-me-nots.

Pam Croom © 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Big Swim

Thursday (18th), I had a few minutes before I needed to leave to pickup my cat from the vet’s office. I looked out back and Breckenridge, the Muscovy duck, was waiting by the feed bowl. That would take two minutes so I booked out back to feed him. As I stepped off the porch, I heard voices in my neighbor’s yard. I did not pay too much attention and went on down to the lake. The voices sounded more excited and I looked over to the corner of the fence that showed from behind the arbor vitae hedge just in time to see Apple appears at the corner-he is inside the fence!

Oh No!!!

He was panicked, running about and running into the fence. My neighbor whose house it is was standing up near the top of her yard, and the neighbor next door to her was standing next to the fence. He was saying, “They’ll just run into a fence until they break their neck.”

Yeah, that is helpful! I thought to myself. “Apple, it is ok, " I said softly to him, but he was terrified. “ How did he get in?” I asked.

“I don’t know!!” she yelled back.

I started moving to the gate at the fence’s middle in front of the lake; all the while, Apple was more panicked by my walking past. My neighbor, seeing me heading in that direction, remembered the gate and she excitedly told me to open it. I whole heartedly agreed with that idea. I opened the gate and Apple was now at the top of the yard. I walked up the middle and angled towards him and he ran down toward the bottom, swung around, ran towards the gate, blasted right past it, and slammed into the far side. “Yep, be careful he’ll break his neck.”

Oh so helpful!

Apple ran back , pausing at the corner to look back in my yard, and then ran up to the top of my neighbor’s yard again. I was trying to turn and see him without scarring him much more. My neighbor directed me on up into the yard and Apple ran back down and across and again hit the fence. This time he turned and ran back a little bit slower and found the gate! He darted out, launched himself through the willow fringe. SPLASH! And he was off and swimming! I ran down the yard, closed the gate, and watched him from the shore.

The lake is really just a big pond, but it is pretty big and Apple is a rather small guy. Deer are excellent swimmers. Water is a refuge for them, a way to escape. I do not know at what age a fawn can swim well, but Apple had clearly passed that age. His head held high he swam with sure strong strokes, he did not falter. I was impressed and proud of him. He swam about two thirds of the way across the lake, and he frantically looked around; the area ahead of him offered no cover. He abruptly changed tack and swam about one quarter of the length of the lake to the shore-so far for such a little fellow to swim! Crouching at the shore, he looked up the line of trees and shrubs that border two yards. He bolted up the yard disappearing into the trees. I held my breath. The road, busy with after-five traffic, was just a few yards away beyond my view. No screeching tires, no sound of impact was heard. Good…

I ran back up my yard and out the front door. I drove the long way around so I could look down the tree line to where I last saw Apple. I could not see him and he had not been hit. Hopefully, if he continued across the road he would stop and not shoot past his mommy’s boundary and get lost. Does leave scent trails for their fawns that establish their natal ground boundary. Deer have an interdigital scent gland between the two halves of their hooves. Just as his mommy laid a trail, Apple would have left a trail that hopefully his mommy could use to find him. Saving a fawn and making it to the vet’s on time- talk about twenty minutes well spent!

As his play area has dwindled with rising water, I have expected the doe to move him away, may be even rejoin the herd. Sadly, I fear this will be the time that she will move him now. If she does not move him, I dread the possibility that he will be terrified of me since I chased him; I do not want to see him wildly running off blinded by fear again and I do not want to be the cause that he flees. Whatever happens, I hope he has learned a lesson that fear and caution are good things, but out of control panic can be deadly. Time will tell.

The question remains how he got inside the fence. I think the gate is too snug for him to slip between it and the fence. A few years ago a tree fell on the fence at the exposed corner where I had seen him. When the fence was repaired, it was about a foot shorter than the rest of the fence at that corner. I suspect he saw something yummy and the fence was short enough for him to jump it there. But once over he panicked and could not find his way back. Getting yourself into something is always easier than getting out-people and fawns alike; I have, more than once, slipped up a cliff face or tree and then once there looked back and thought, “Huh, wonder how I’m going to get down…..” So, I been there and done that and did managed not to break my neck either.

The next day I stayed out of the yard until almost dark. I slipped down to the lake and dumped out the duck food. I eased out onto the dock, listening for the quiet little noises Apple makes moving about in the dense cover. Then I saw him, he was all beautiful, whole, and now nonplussed. He stood there comfortable and sure of himself browsing a few forbs growing up through the shallows. Nonchalantly, he walked away, taking his time, but wagging his tail a bit just to let me know he was a wee bit put out by my presence on the dock. To say I was relieved and ecstatic is an understatement. Not only was he still in my yard, he was not scared of me, and doing his best to show me he was not concerned in the least. So, his mommy was not ready for him to leave the fawning ground! AND, Apple must have learned he can out run me so I am not much of a threat…”poor pitiful Pam she can’t run worth squat!”

Pam Croom © 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Baby Boxes!!!

Late August into September is the time that box turtles hatch here in north Alabama. If you have never had the luck to see a hatchling box turtle then you missed out on cuteness extremis! Most references that I found on the subject of box turtle nesting report that the turtles seek out sandy soil. There is not much sandy soil here; where it exists (or more friable soil at least) is along the rivers in the bottomlands. Bottomlands are subject to flooding, and submersion of the eggs for more than just a short time would kill the eggs. The female turtles that I have found appear to move upland to lay their eggs in clay soils. My yard is aquatic turtle nesting site central. All of the aquatic turtles, with the exception of the snapping turtles, nest way up the yard. Near the lake, the water table is only about a foot below the surface, and during rainy periods, it is near the surface. I think that by going higher up the yard (uphill, not just away from the lake), they guarantee the eggs will not sit in water. They do not choose the looser garden or compost pile (once a turtle nested in the compost pile edge) they choose the hard clay. The nest that are upland in the yard do not suffer depredation; skunks and raccoons only seem to find them after the hatch and the nest has been already breached by the hatchlings. The snappers nest lower down in the yard on small hillocks. A particular favorite spot of the snappers suffered a tree downing. The stump was ground and this loosened the soil adding a lot of wood chips to it; all of this made the soil much more friable. The snappers flocked to this spot to lay, and all the nests were found and the eggs destroyed. Years later the chips are rotted away, but the soil is still easy to turn and occasionally the nests are destroyed. I think the clay soils with less organic material seals the scent of the nest. The friable soil of the snapper’s nest probably does not seal as completely. Well, it is a possible interpretation of my observations.

Box turtle nests are well camouflaged and difficult to find once the female turtle is done. After the babies leave the nest, it is not much more obvious than before they emerged. So do not feel bad if you have never found a nest or hatchlings either! When the hatchlings are ready to leave their dark and cozy egg chamber one of the babies punches out a small plug. Through this small hole, all the babies emerge. From the nests that I have seen, there seems to be one truly adventurous baby who opens the chamber; and when he is out of hole, he is out of there! Zip, zoom, gone! Baby number two generally is not so sure about the big wide world and is more cautious about moving out the chamber and leaving the area. After two leaves home, the others follow except for the last straggler. There usually is one reluctant baby who seems to think the whole idea of hatching and leaving is a really bad idea, and he can usually be found, headfirst back in his open eggshell. When I have popped the top of the chamber off and found the last baby I have it taken out of shell and always heads straight back for its shell! As cute as this delayed procession of emergence is, it might serve a purpose. It may increase the safety of the nestlings by spreading out their introduction to the world-if one is found and eaten the others are not right there next to it waiting to be picked off. One baby may die but the predator may not find the nest and give up allowing the other babies to live another day.

Hatchlings do not hatch and emerge immediately. They first must absorb their yolk sac. They can remain in the chamber for days before they leave. Some references speculate on clutches layed late in the year (some turtles lay a second clutch, usually in August) the babies hatch out and over winter in the nest chamber. I have seen lots of second clutches that never develop. A second clutch I was raising, over wintered, and successfully hatched, but the mother had buried them deep and they never emerged; by the time I dug them up they were dead (that was in February-too cold for them to have survived on their own anyway. This is the only time I have seen second clutches survive. It stands to reason that enough second clutchers must make it adulthood to select for this reproductive strategy trait. Perhaps the few that emerge from the nest in the spring have an advantage-may be more prey and more cover. The months to eat and grow before they have to hibernate may give them greater survivability through the winter. Perhaps the fall emerged babies cannot dig in deep enough to survive harsh winters, and spring emerge babies might be deep enough to survive had freezes. I do not know, there are not survivorship studies on box turtle hatchlings, but there are possibilities that are worthwhile exploring.

The babies in the pictures emerged the first week of September. They represent two different clutches. A third clutch died in the shell-the whole clutch (perhaps disease). I have seen some eggs that fail to develop; I do not know if they are infertile or other reasons, but they all seem to be attacked by molds. The pictures of the baby upside down show his umbilical scar from the absorbed yolk sac. Once hatched, the babies appear to dig into the duff or moss. I suspect early in life, in a forested environment, they just stay dug in where it is moist and wait for dinner to come to them. For their first few years, they are extremely vulnerable. They cannot close their shells, their shells are not that strong-not enough to withstand teeth-and they are small and swallowable. They are hors-d’oeuvres waiting to happen! I am amazed that any baby boxes escape the sensitive noses’ of skunks, raccoons, and opossums, and probing beaks of herons and crows! I am glad enough do make through their early years! Boxes are interesting animals, and it sure doesn’t hurt my interest in them that they are soooo cute as babies!!! The picture below is a baby next to a quarter; sometimes they are barely bigger than a nickle!

An excellent book that reviews the scientific literature of box turtles is: C Kenneth Dodd Jr., North American Box Turtles: A Natural History, Animal Natural History Series v. 6, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 2001.

2008 © Pam Croom

Friday, September 12, 2008

Change is Coming

Yesterday I drove to Nashville. I spotted black birds, returning migrants in large flocks. Over a field adjacent to I-565 I saw something that made my heart jump a little. Harriers coursing low over the grassy field; wings held up in the characteristic V, slipping silently and gracefully over the grass. These birds that are absent all summer have returned to Alabama their winter ground. Autumn seems to migrate in with them slipping into the slipstream of these magnificent birds drafting them all the way south. Fall will be here soon!!!

If the Harriers were not enough evidence of autumn's impending arrival, lower Tennessee had more than its usual amazingly large population of vultures; they too have returned for winter. A few years ago I saw a this magnificent display of vultures en masse. They were using a tree near I-65 as a communal roost just up the road a bit from the Booby Bungalow (a well known land mark that's name is self-explanatory). I'm not sure if there was a causal link of the roost's proximity to the Bungalow, but it is amusing to think of...a bunch of rolled patrons, drunk and unconscious lying passed out in a ditch with the vultures just waiting and hoping!

© Pam Croom 2008
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