Monday, March 19, 2012

Scales, feathers, fur, chitin

A few days ago, Cheryl noticed the milkweed was coming up. We looked at each other significantly: That meant the Monarchs would arrive any day.

Sunday the 18th the forecast was for partly cloudy and up near eighty. We packed a lunch and went east into Mississippi County to Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We started by walking parts of the ring path around the Moist Soils Unit. It's a neat place where rare birds often turn up. It has interesting grasshoppers and dragonflies and special butterflies like Bronze Copper and Broad-winged Skipper. It was too early for most of those, but it was just right to watch spawning Bowfin. We stood on the bank and looked straight down on a number of these "living fossils" rising to the top and gulping air in their big jaws, taking it down into the air bladder that serves as a primitive lung, their long continuous dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water and undulating with a snake's motion. When the eggs hatch in April you can sometimes see the young in a tight group, looking rather like a school of black tadpoles, foraging in shallow overflow water. If you look closely, you can make out the two-foot-long male bowfin just behind them, obscured by being in slightly deeper water, guarding them till they are old enough to take care of themselves.

They must make very effective guards. I once found the dried-out head of one by a fishing pier and took it home and soaked off the skin and took the skull, which had now come apart into hundreds of pieces, and spent hours gluing it back together. I remember the big sharp teeth went on forever, rows of teeth, teeth on the tongue, teeth on the palate.

We continued on down the path. There were a few ducks on the far side, shovelers, gadwall, blue-winged teal, ring-billed ducks, a single wigeon. We made sure to check its head color; a European wigeon had been seen in the state recently. There was a lot of emergent vegetation in the central pond we were walking around, and it had dozens of coot in it in two or three big groups, the individuals in each group swimming so close together they were touching each other. When we got close to one group it sped away, feet dragging in the water, wings beating, splashing and making a great fuss. They finally merged into one big flock, where they went along, heads beside heads, like a creche of enormous baby birds, or, inescapably, like black flamingos doing their mass mating dance.

Clouds towered around us, but there was still plenty of sun. However there was not much in the way of insects. A few ordinary butterflies, some Common Green Darner dragon flies (all males, with fresh bright blue abdomens), in one area tiny Orangewing Moths insisted on landing on us and staying with us.

And then Cheryl looked out across the lake: Here it comes, she said, and there was the first Monarch of the year flapping and gliding towards us.

We drove into the reserve past Mallard Lake, keeping to the right and drove to where the road ended at a bridge closed to passage. There was a boat launch there and a big gravel parking lot. We took out our lunch and ate it walking around to see what was there. We were up on the raised road with a stream behind us and a wetland in front of us. While we stood in the middle of the parking lot a tiny mouse came running up the bank towards us, falling all over itself in haste, got right between my boots and cowered down there, refusing to move.

We walked over to the bank it had just scampered up and saw why it was running. There was a very big rat snake there that looked like it had already swallowed all the other rodents in the area. Here it is, just departing when I got too close to it. As far as the mouse was concerned, it was a Florida python, and he was going to stay by us.

In fact when we looked back, he was still sitting in the middle of the parking lot with no intention of moving.

If we are correct in our identification, this is a Fulvous Harvest Mouse, a new species for us. We knew fishermen would soon be coming with their pickups and boat trailers, so we gently nudged the mouse off into the grass.

We drove back by Mallard Lake. The lake is being drawn down for some reason, and there is a wide muddy beach such as we had never seen before, and a single Black-necked Stilt (also unusual there) was feeding along the edge.

We drove back to the main road and parked by the dam spillway, a place we had discovered last year with a little sort of nature trail along the edge, a place with sycamore trees infested with really interesting caterpillars, and shrubbery full of interesting grasshoppers. None of that was there now. We did however find another nice snake, a half-grown Broad-banded Water Snake.

We were again on a gravel parking lot, this one unused and rather overgrown with grass. It was here we found our first and only grasshoppers of the day. They were all Northern Green-striped Grasshoppers, a very common species, nearly the first out in spring, the last to disappear in the late fall.  They were already quite numerous, jumping and flying away from us at practically every step. I was checking each one for anything unusual, and that's when I saw it, the high point of my day: the males of this species often come in a brown phase, and the females are almost entirely green. But suddenly here was a female that had all of its green coloring replaced by a deep red. This seemed very special, and it even sat still and posed for pictures.

I'm surprised I was able to write this much, and show this many pictures, when, taken all in all, it was a pretty quiet day.

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