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
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