Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Love Among the Nuthatches

The little drama below was photographed by Lisa Culp on March 24, 2013 in Somme Prairie Grove.

Many people don’t even notice them, even though you can find nuthatches year round in every good Illinois woods.  Only occasionally perching on a branch, they mostly hug tree trunks and limbs. That’s their niche; they hunt bugs and bug eggs in the tree bark.

But when it comes to love, among the nuthatches it's truly a many-splendored thing. The male is a handsome devil, with a beady eye, black cap, and elegant blue-gray, black, and white design. (You can't see his fetching chestnut under tail coverts until he's ready to flaunt them.) 

Lisa's camera was following a demure female, with a gray cap and generally more restrained 
and subtle style. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she (the person) noticed that she (bird) had company. 

Indeed, our little female stopped looking at Lisa and started looking at Mr. Big Stuff. 
It turned out that he'd arrived with a bug. 

Mrs. Hatch opens her bill with a begging gesture. That's how she indicates she's decided
 to give the guy a try. As you can see, this gesture makes him hopping excited. A courtship 
is under way, and she is saying, "Yes - yes - feed me."                                                                                                                                                                                

Now comes the nuthatch version of kissing. They are both holding the bug. 
Their bills are together in a very intimate moment. My apologies to any sensitive viewers 
for whom this may be too much. (Even more exciting, you get a hint 
of those chestnut under tail coverts. Okay, it's not much of a view, and she can't seem them at all. They must fit in to some other stage of the courtship. But there they are.)

He hands off the bug. Be my mate. He's so strong and generous. Or is he?

He flies off to find more presents. She will eat the moth in peace and happiness. 

Yes, he's proving himself to be a good provider. But generous? Research on other birds shows that a well-fed female will lay more eggs (containing her, and his, genes). So, for the male, it's not all generosity. Perhaps he's expressing love. But it benefits him too. At least he'll help her feed the chicks, which is more than the bird males of some other species do. 


1. She will lay between 3 to 11 eggs in a hole in a tree. They'll both feed the chicks insects and spiders. In winter they also eat acorns that they "hatch" out of their shells by wedging them in a tree crevice and whacking them with their bills. 

2. They do best among mature trees with a lot of old dead limbs. Please don't cut down the dead and dying trees in places where you want nature. So many species depend on them.

3. The research on increased egg laying with males feeding females was conducted on terns (which have to be light to effectively dive for fish). The female when she's ready to lay eggs weighs 50% more than when she's not breeding. In fact, she stops feeding herself entirely; she's just too fat. According to the Birder's Handbook by Paul Ehrlich et. al., "when a male warbler, crossbill, chickadee, or tern is seen feeding a female, it seems apparent that he is increasing his own reproductive success by keeping her fat and healthy." Inspiring, isn't it?

4. Nuthatches often fly high into a tree and then descend down the trunk head first, hopping, using their feet more than their wings. No other bird does that. Creative.

5. According to Ehrlich, "Courting male carries food to female, performs bowing and singing ritual with head feathers raised, tail spread." According to Richard Pough in the Audubon Land Bird Guide, nuthatches often mate for life.   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How Graphic is Too Graphic?

I received a thoughtful note criticizing my last blog - which contained photos of a dead deer somewhat torn up by coyotes. The concerns troubled me, so I asked a few people for advice. Here’s the note, followed by the advice I got - followed by comments from readers of this blog.

      Realizing I run the risk offending you, I still decided I should give you my assessment of your recent blog post.  I found it to be morbid.  I think this type of posting would scare away potential volunteers.


When I wrote people, I asked:

“I wonder if you agree, disagree or "are agnostic" about (James) comment…
I wonder about the line between ‘compelling’ and ‘alienating.’"

Dennis responded:

I enjoyed the blog. It was very real, and very personal, for me as a fellow steward … although I could see where the deer carcass photos could be off-putting to the more squeamish. But are those the types that read your blog? … I would hope that most are open minded enough try to understand and learn about the realities of the natural world, which isn't always pretty and tidy. I think this post, and the reactions to it, can be a learning experience. So in the tradition of Leopold and Sigurd Olson, I say carry on -- you are telling stories … that are worth telling, and you are keeping them real.

Lee called and said:

I hope you’ll take this the right way. Those gruesome photos are just too much. I go to nature and to your blog for beauty. I have more than enough of the negative in my life without this. When I read your first dead deer blog (“A Death on the Prairie”), I didn’t dare go back for months. I didn’t say anything, but it was too much. I don’t go there for that.

Eliezer wrote:

I am a true believer that nature should be taken raw; that is, nature should not—must not—be gussied up à la Disney or as is the general (current day) Japanese tendency to cute-ify nature…
You can’t be so concerned with ‘scaring off’ volunteers that you violate basic precepts about how we would seek to be authentically related to the natural world of which we are a part.

Sunny wrote:

If this turns off potential volunteers, I imagine they are people we would have lost eventually, anyway, to any number of unpleasantnesses that pop up regularly in the real (i.e. natural) world—things like mud, or…insects.  The Somme Prairie Grove could never be maintained as the perfect, Disney-ized, flowers and butterflies environment they could approve of.  Death is everywhere in the natural world.  It can’t be white-washed; it is, in fact, part of life.  Can’t have one without the other.  I actually think it would be grotesque to try to separate the two.  It was a good post—please don’t take it down.

James wrote:

It is important for people to understand predators and scavengers.  However, this can be conveyed without such graphics.  You should always strive to convey "life" when you promote restoration.  A good example of a positive photo would be a coyote feeding its pups.  This conveys life, even if a meadow vole had to be sacrificed for the dinner.  I think the theme of "life" should even be applied to plants.  Focusing on methods to kill weeds would turn off many people who might be interested in helping nature.  However, showing the recovery after weeds had been removed would convey how Stewards give "life" to their sites… Your goal should always be to compel people to become more involved.  Learning is a process.  People volunteer for many reasons.  You do not want to scare away potential supporters before they have gotten their boots on the ground to learn more about the importance of your work.

Elizabeth wrote:

Oh my response will be quick! Hell yes you should post this. It belongs to the real fuc%ing world! It is our duty as stewards to help volunteers learn and process what they may witness, not remove parts of the environment that is challenging or uncomfortable for some.

Robert wrote:

I read the post after you sent me this e-mail and was intrigued. I personally did not share the sentiments of James…Maybe I am desensitized. I am going to say that I am 'agnostic' on this one. I don't feel strongly one way or another with regard to the impact upon potential volunteers. I find this post fascinating; I have personally found very few opportunities to track and observe top predators in Illinois (or anywhere for that matter) and felt compelled to follow you on your journey. While I find myself agreeing more with commentators Steve Halm and E Wenscott, I can appreciate what James says. The final image on this blog post, the one with the scattered remains of a deer, is indeed gruesome … Not everyone likes to think about this aspect of ecology. It is one that has been absent from our natural areas for some time now, and as populations of top predators return to our landscape their stories should be written.

Then I make this final comment:

You know, I’m still troubled and unsure. I was moved by the spirit of every response. I deeply agree with the people who appreciate all parts of nature. I also deeply appreciate the people who are repelled by “the gruesome.” I want all of us to continue to be part of the community and the discussion. Perhaps there should be two blogs: one called “The Beauty of Somme” and another called “The Nature of Somme.” (The second would have all the same posts as the first, and then some additional.) But I hope there are better solutions than that.

Please leave a comment, if you have thoughts on this.


Monday, March 04, 2013

Tracks and Blood in the Snow

I follow the coyotes and they follow me.

One day I was cross-country skiing through Somme near twilight and noticed a coyote pacing me to my right – watching with the oddest look. I stopped to watch back, kind of giggling inside. I must have seemed bizzarro to “God’s dog.” As I stood and smiled, the animal made a 360o circle around me, at a respectful distance, and then went on its way.

For my adventure today, March 2, 2013, I follow the paw-prints of coyotes that mostly walk but sometimes bound all the way from the Middle Fork of the North Branch across the entire width of Somme Woods, cross Waukegan Road, and traverse the entire savanna of Somme Prairie Grove before disappearing into Somme Prairie.

What do I discover? God’s dogs were eating venison, probably from animals struck by vehicles before limping off into the woods; coyotes are too small to prey on adult deer.

Near the Middle Fork I find two hoofed legs attached by a scrap of tawny pelt, then a raw skull and spinal column. Fifty yards away is a larger and essentially fleshless pelt they’d been dragging around.

Tracks take me to check out fallen trees, into thickets, along streambanks. In mid preserve I stop for the pleasure of sandhill cranes – 16 of them circling and trumpeting overhead on their migration north. Whatever will they find to eat in all this snow and ice? But the smart ones want to be the first to claim the best nursery grounds for this year’s colts.
Crane flying low over Somme Prairie Grove in 2010. Photo by Lisa Culp.

In the Woods I follow just one set of tracks, but in Prairie Grove a pair travelled together all the way across. At one point they passed within a few feet of an obvious rabbit hole, but they didn’t even stop to sniff. They’ve probably checked this secure burrow often enough to get bored with it. Only rabbit tracks in this photo:

At one point they both stop and pee on the same goldenrod stalk. The mind of the dog is opaque to me when it comes to smells. They have their reasons.  

On a knoll near the railroad is a great multitude of coyote prints and another deer in the early stages of disassembly. Clearly they knew where it was; they’d been heading straight for it as they crossed the savanna. Eating that much food should take many days. But it’s winter. Venison will stay fresh for them.

Some people think nature is perfect and beautiful. It is more than that. I am of the coyote's world and not of their world. Paw-prints continue west beyond the carcass, past the railroad, and into Somme Prairie, but I’m done. My awkward boots and cramped feet have had enough of deep and crusty snow.

As I exit across Dundee, paw-prints here suggest that three coyotes jointly explored the thickets that line the road. They’re dense – as a barrier to vehicles and the madding sights and sounds of so-called civilization. One of God’s dogs crossed the road and travelled for a while through people’s yards. That’s where I headed too.