Posts Tagged 'Nantucket'

Summer Flounder

D’oh! Forgot to take my camera when we took Nora to the Maria Mitchell Aquarium. Next time. But in the meantime, on the porch of the MMA administrative building, next to the whale bone, I found this dessicated Summer Flounder (Paralichthys dentatus), classic example of a flatfish with both its eyes on the top side. The eyes to the left, as well as the eye-like patterns on the body, identify it. Other flounders like the Winter have their eyes on the right side. Flat fish are born with their eyes on opposite sides; the “other” eye migrates to the dominant side as these fish grow. According to members of the U.S. House Committee on Science, this is because they looked cross-eyed at God and were cursed forever approximately 6,000 years ago.And this is what the underside (right-hand side in the Summer’s case; starboard to the sailor) looks like. They can change the color and pattern on their topside to match the ocean habitat below them (sandy, muddy, etc.), but their underside is quite plain. No need for camo. you will only see this side when you pull it out of the water, and as a major commercial fish, they are pulled. This was a youngster, about five inches long; they can get up to 20 inches and 3 pounds. Found up and down the East Coast, especially between Massachusetts to the Carolinas. They have a very wavy swimming motion, like ribbon in the water.

Right. But what was it doing on the porch? Rather fishy…. This brings to mind Thoreau’s notion that “some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” Hell of a line, but what the hell does it mean? What is it evidence of? Milk that’s been diluted, that’s what, in this case with water from the local trout stream. Before gummerment started its dangblang interferrin’ with things like health and safety, interference of course demanded by an enraged populace, adulterators of milk tried to get away with whatever they could. Remember that both Prospect Park and Central Park had diaries in their early days so children could get fresh milk at a time when other sources were iffy at best. American history is being repeated as tragic farce in China, where the murderous rampages of unregulated capitalism have resulted in poisoned milk, poisoned toys, etc.

Wood Lily

Lilium philadelphicum, a rare beauty.

Burying Beetles

Burying beetles, also called sexton beetles, after the church employee traditionally in charge of the congregation’s corpses, need carrion. They eat dead mammals and birds, as well as the fly larvae that feed off carrion, but most importantly they bury it with their own eggs, giving their young something to eat. Pictured above are two species of burying beetles: Nicophorus marginatus (left) and Nicophorus orbicollis (right), found in traps baited with rotting chicken on Nantucket last week.I accompanied Josh Morse of the Maria Mitchell Association to check out these profoundly stinky traps. (This is biology for the retch-proof.) The MMA is partnering with the Roger Williams Zoo to reintroduce and foster the American Burying Beetle (N. americanus), known as “ABB” to its fans.

The ABB was the first insect placed on the Endangered Species list. It is the largest of our carrion beetles (up to 1.5″, nearly twice as big as these) and was once found throughout the northeastern corner of the U.S. and Canada. But the species is now largely confined to a few Midwestern states. The only place on the East Coast ABBs can now be found is Block Island and Nantucket.

Josh didn’t find any ABBs on this trip, hence no pictures of them here, but then these beetle do most of their work in June. And that work is the recycling of carcasses as a food source for their young. They build their brood chambers around these carcasses, and then they stick around, feeding their young. For the ABB is one of the few non-social insect species that provides care for their young once the egg laying stage is done.

The ABB’s range has been severely limited because of habitat destruction, pesticides, and bug zappers, as well as the elimination or severe reduction of large predators like bears, wolves, and bobcats. That has meant a surge in smaller mammal predators, like foxes, raccoons, and skunks, who take carrion before these nocturnal beetles can get on the job. The increase in vultures and corvids, who have benefited from road kill, has probably impacted this as well. Notably, the bird thought most prized by the ABB for its broods was the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius, extinct), reaped from the skies during the 19th century in the hundreds of millions until there were simply no more of them left. A fine example of how species are interconnected, and how the elimination of one can affect a whole ecosystem, the thread that unwinds the rug. Today, ABB restoration projects use quail carcasses for the beetles. This exploitation of carrion by burying beetles is an important part of the recycling of nutrients back into soil (and also helps keep the fly population down). Josh is of the opinion this is the reason blackberries and low bush blueberries do so well in the trapping area, which was in the Miacomet area.Meanwhile, there are several species of carrion beetles who like smaller carcasses of birds and mammals, and these species seem to be maintaining their populations. Pictured in this post are three of them, all, like the ABB, species in genus Nicophorus, and all showing orange-to-reddish spots on their elatra. Another carrion beetle, the American Carrion Beetle (Necrophilia americana: gotta love that binomial!) tumbled away before I could get a picture of it. All these beetles were released, by the way.

One of the things that most stuck with me from Josh’s explanation is that the size of all these beetles is largely determined by the size of the animal carcass they were raised on (and the number of young). Makes complete sense, of course, but something I’ve never considered before. The picture above, of Nicorphorus tomentosus, which seems to be a bit of a bumblebee mimic with its golden hairs and flying pattern, was of a particularly small specimen.And speaking of small specimens: note how the marginatus above is absolutely crawling with mites. Click on image to get a bigger version, if you dare. These beetles turn out to be total mite-buses.

In Maria’s Basement

I’ve mentioned the Maria Mitchell Association on Nantucket in my previous posts without explaining much anything about it. In four decades connection with the island, I’ve been to their observatory, science center, and library many times. A friend of the family wrote the most recent biography. So I naturally assume that everybody knows who Nantucket-born Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was. Insular thinking, of course. Briefly, she was America’s first woman astronomer, the discover of a comet via telescope, and later the first ever professor of astronomy at Vassar College. Born a Quaker, she became a Unitarian, and combining these dissenting traditions, it shouldn’t be surprising that she was also an abolitionist — boycotting, for instance, (slave-made) cotton — and a suffragist. In the 19th century, Quakers were unusually egalitarian, and Nantucket’s isolation and male de-population (away for years in the whaling trade, abandoning the island for the Gold Rush, etc.) added to the impetus for the island being full of strong, independent women. No time for fashionably consumptive bed-sitters there. Of course, it helped that Mitchell’s father was a banker and could buy her a telescope.

Very important: her given name is pronounced like the wind, old English style, “Mah-RYE-uh,” not the new-fangled Latinate “Mah-REE-ah.”In 1902, some of Mitchell’s former students and surviving relatives got together to form the Association in her name to further her educational mission in the natural sciences and natural history. The place is still going strong, and growing even stronger with an new science center facility scheduled to open in 2013. Recently, I got to see some of the collections inside the Hinchman House property of the Association, where the Science Center is currently located. Collections Manager Julia Blyth, who is also the MMA’s bird bander, snake catcher, dragonfly surveyor, intern wrangler, and etc., led the tour. There are samples of the island’s spiders, moths, beetles, bees, mammals — including the Muskeget vole, Massachusett’s only endemic mammal, found only on the tiny satellite island west of Nantucket proper — but birds predominate. (And are also easier to photograph.)My mother used to bring home dead shorebirds and pop them in the freezer for Edith Folger Andrews, who wrote the book on Nantucket’s birds in 1948. People still bring in specimens. In fact, there’s a freezer full of specimens that Blyth, who prepares the specimens, or “skins,” now, just hasn’t gotten to yet. UPDATED: I got some excellent questions about this post from a friend on Facebook. Why are these things collected, anyway? What can we learn from them? Since each individual in a species is distinct, not least at the genetic level, a range of samples can be helpful to study populations in isolation and in comparison with others of the same species. Of course, it may be years before anybody wants to take a look at these things, but there have been cases where researchers have checked historic specimens to look at disease, DNA, speciation, etc.

For nearly a century now, it has been illegal to capture and/or kill migratory birds, collect their eggs and nests (once popular hobbies), and even to collect their feathers. This is because such birds used to be slaughtered in such numbers that people began to worry they would be made extinct, as some in fact were. Science is the exception when it comes to collecting bird specimens. Most of the specimens are from accidental deaths. The rare Golden Eagle (not photographed) in this collection hit a power line. The Bohemian waxwings (in the 5th photo), not normally found at our latitude, were the result of an irruption some years ago. Unfortunately, they died in droves on the island. A Peregrine falcon (not photographed) in the collection had been banded in Lawrence, MA, before wending its way south to the island, where it was struck by a car. All a bit of a bummer, to be sure, but hopefully, in being preserved and recorded, they can contribute something to our knowledge of the species. And hopefully that knowledge is something we can use to defend and foster the complex web of life that surrounds us, that we, in fact, are a part of.

Mud Cells

Two summers ago, a Black and Yellow Mud Dauber wasp built her nest in the Back 40 (inches). A new generation of these large, black-bodied wasps with yellow legs emerged in June of last year. This year I had one inside the house. Not here in Brooklyn, but at the family house in Massachusetts. This wasp was building her nest in the front door frame, between the screen and house doors. The screen door of the old manse is sagging, so there’s a gap at the top, which allowed her access.As the name mud-dauber suggests, these wasps build their nests out of mud, individual cells first, then a surrounding stucco of mud around the cluster of cells. Here she was just starting out. One of the inch-long cells had been sealed, the other was still open and unfilled.Inside each cell, the wasp lays an egg atop the provisions she has brought for the larva-to-come. The young eat paralyzed spiders.I shooed the wasp out of the house half a dozen times before I found the location of the developing nest. Regretfully, I broke it up and found these four spiders in the sealed cell. But then a couple of days later, in the same door frame, clearly an excellent location — water is dried mud’s worst enemy — another cell appeared. It’s darker on the left hand side of the cell because the mud there is still wet.This one had thirteen spiders crammed into it.There are several different species of orb-weavers here. The abdomen certainly do look meaty.Really sorry I had to break up the housekeeping here, considering the huge amount of work this one wasp had to do. She carried bit after bit of mud — it’s been dry on the island too, but I’m guessing the construction site next door might have been a source — and hunted down the spiders on her own. Like a lot of adult predatory wasps, she herself is a vegetarian, supping on nectar. Meanwhile, there are cleptoparasitic wasps who like to avail themselves of the provisioning the Black and Yellow wasp does. Endlessly fascinating is the natural world.

Banding Osprey, Part II

Osprey chicks can be too old to band, because as they near fledging, they may jump off the nest site prematurely to get away from the human who has climbed up to borrow them for a moment. If they aren’t actually ready to fly, this can lead to broken wings. This one, however, was a perfect candidate for banding, still a few weeks away from fledging but big enough to take the band (which our cousins across the Atlantic call “rings”).These orange eyes will turn to yellow at maturity. This particular bird was the oldest of the eight chicks, perhaps a week from fledging. A lot more feisty then the white-stripped young ‘uns in our first nest, it drew blood from Julia’s arm. The pesticide DDT, applied for decades around the country and world, severely reduced the number of large raptors because it concentrated up the food chain. In the birds, it weakened the chemical composition of eggs so much that adult birds were crushing their own young. The eastern sub-species of the Peregrine falcon was in fact exterminated from the region before DDT was banned. Among several efforts to bring back viable populations of large birds of prey, one was the placement of nesting poles for osprey. Here’s one that was set up recently. It’s had no takers yet. So half a dozen of us went about priming the pump, most of us by looking for pieces of wood in the area. The idea is that when a nest-less bird shows up in the area next spring, he’ll find a partial nest site with no bird claiming it, and thus claim it themselves. Males arrive first: he can show off his nest site to a prospective female, and if they mate the pair can then build it further together. If all goes well, Osprey will return to their nests year after year. That’s Julia at the top weaving in some of the wood atop a mesh frame. Nests are about five feet across, and can get to be several feet high, especially if they used year after year, since the paired birds added to and repair winter damage. The birds will add all sorts of objects, often things found on the beach, like rope and fishing lures, to the nest. They line it with eel grass (there’s a piece of the dried grass hanging off the bird in the first image above). The most notable find in an island nest has been a Barbie doll.Voila! To let: a multi-million dollar view of the Head of the Harbor. (And none of the traffic.)
I could only contribute to one day of the planned two-day island Maria Mitchell Association Osprey banding mission. News from Osprey maven Bob Kennedy is that they banned a total of 14 chicks, out of the 30 youngsters they found. Thirty is a record number for the island. The others were either too young, or, mostly, too old to band. So this has been a very good year indeed. The previous island record number was 23. Last year there were only 8 chicks island-wide.

The intensity of the breeding season is winding down. In a month and half, these great raptors will start to head to South America. The young ones will be making their first migration, a journey of many hazards, to places they’ve never been before. The odds are stacked against them, which is why a robust breeding year is so important. I wish them luck. May they live long and prosper.

Banding Osprey, Part I

Last year, there was one fledged Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) chick on the east end of Nantucket. Numbers had been dwindling in previous years and last year was pretty much bottom; there just weren’t any fish to be had, so the adult Osprey were traveling to hunt at the other end of the island, but that was a much longer trip, and the hungry adults were eating most of the prey before it got back to the young ones. This year’s a lot better: eight chicks, two in each of four active nests on the east side. I joined a group from the Maria Mitchell Association last Monday to band the nestlings. The first two were just about a week old, too young to be banded; the metal bands would have slipped right off their legs. When they are this young, they are pretty much helpless, and so play dead to the cheeping commands of their parents, who circle above. Note the stripes down their backs: this helps them blend into their stick nests when seen from above.The next three pairs were all old enough to band. Each bird got a numbered band and had his or her wing and tail feathers measured. Banding data is all centrally collected; when bands are reported found, the information can give an idea of age and migration patterns of birds (the oldest known Ospreys have lived into their late 20s; if they survive their first year, a very big if, they may more typically live 12-15 years). From two years of satellite tracking, we know that one of Nantucket’s male Osprey spends our winter in Colombia. He takes about two weeks to fly back and forth in the spring and fall.Humans Jessie, left, and Julia, right, were the recorder and bander on this trip. (Julia recently banded over 70 Barn Owl chicks on the island; a few years ago there was one known barn owl in residence after a couple of bad winters.) I helped to carry the ladders and to feed the mosquitoes. As fish eaters, Osprey usually nest near bodies of water, fresh, brackish, and salt. They are thus often near or around marshes. And that means our deadly enemies the mosquitoes, specifically the salt marsh murderous mosqito. I was absolutely savaged by the little fuckers. Luckily, the carnivorous green-headed flies were not out in force as well. One of the nest sites was in Medouie Creek, renown as the most mosquito-ridden part of the island; the people who bought the property where the osprey nest was set up did so in the middle of winter. Oops.Bob Kennedy, in blue in the lead here, has been following the island’s Osprey for many years. (He’s now also involved with a project with the birds at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.) We’re in the salt-marsh Glades at Costaka in this shot, heading to that distant nest pole. Salt marsh hay, fiddler crabs, and that strange succulent salicornia at our feet. Nesting Willets adding to the noise of the adult Osprey overhead. And that horrible high-pitched whine. Jessie said it looked like I had a halo of mosquitoes around my head. With my hat and my long hair, only my face was available for bloodmeals.More to come Sunday.

Seen on Nantucket

I was on Nantucket at the beginning of the month and it was cool, overcast, and/or rainy much of the time I was there. One afternoon, however, the sun poured out.The “beard” of a bearded lily. A polypore mushroom of some kind in the State Forest.In the Highlands of Scotland some years ago, I got to know the gorse, Ulex gallii. In the same family is what we Yanks call Scotch broom, Cytisus scoparius, an invasive. The sheet webs of spiders in the grass are most visible when dew-laden in the morning.These Mallard ducklings were only about five feet away, but I had to shoot through a window screen. One more out of frame makes eight total for this brood.

The winter beach, the small house

Two of my favorite things.

The blurb on Charlton Ogburn, Jr.’s The Winter Beach (1966) says it’s “timeless,” but no, it’s very much a piece of its era. Ogburn traveled down the east coast in the early 1960s and he was mostly bummed out at what he found of the post-war boom. The environmental movement, although there were clarions in the wilderness like Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring was published in 1962, was only just beginning; the Cuyahoga River didn’t burn its way into the nation’s consciousness until 1969; most of the landmark clean air and water legislation wouldn’t come until the 1970s. Ogburn is marvelously descriptive about the natural world and philosophic about the human one – rightly wondering why the Middle Eastern monotheisms have such animas towards nature, this world as opposed to some wishful-thinking about another.

Recommended to me by a friend, I tracked the book down at Brooklyn Public because I am a great fan of the spare, elemental beaches of wintertime. I’ve done a lot of my winter beaching on Nantucket, and it turned out Ogburn went to the island on the old slow ferry from Woods Hole, probably not too long before I first went there as a toddler. This passage is worth quoting at length, particularly if like me you’ve seen the crazed growth what I call “SUV-houses” on the island: ridiculously over-scaled behemoths trouncing the island’s compact architectural heritage. (The average size of the American house has doubled since the 1950s, while the average family size has shrunk; while Nantucket, trophy-house location for our economic masters, has probably seen a quadrupling of the average house size – many of these monstrosities, known so quaintly as “compounds,” are empty most of the year.)

“It was the past that Nantucket preserved that was home – a past that was of human scale, for which, indeed, perhaps most of us are in one way or another homesick. The industrialists and big-time panderers to human weakness and greed – the advertisers, the entertainment-mongers, the commercial land-developers and their like – have not found Nantucket a fruitful field or have been restrained by law. Nantucket is of a time before we were dwarfed and denigrated by the hugeness of a machine-built civilization having for its standards the common denominators of a mass market. Its character is of the days when it was the natural world that was vast and overpowering, when the communities into which men and women drew together in their common interests, out of necessity, had, it is evident, some of the intimate quality of a gathering around a campfire. One need not be enamored of the past as such to feel the appeal of an order of things that was essentially human, to which a person’s relationships were primarily human, not institutionalized and mechanical, when even material objects, being the product of human hands, had a warmth and life.”

Nantucket still has some eight hundred homes built before the Civil War. This is one of the richest concentrations of such historic buildings in the country. One of my favorites is 23 Milk Street.The place was built in 1750 and just re-shingled this past winter. Family friend Kenneth Duprey lived here for many years, and the house is the star of his 1959 book Old Houses on Nantucket (it’s been reprinted several times). It is absolutely dominated by the massive chimney, a density of brick that makes a small house even smaller inside. According to a couple of real estate sites, it’s 1,566 square feet. The chimney is fed by five fireplaces, including the kitchen (I remember Ken’s cat in the bread oven nook of the kitchen fireplace.) The phrase that leaps to my mind about such 18th century places is that they are “ship shape,” built small both because of the lack of resources and a mentality of modesty.
Interesting life, Ogburn’s: a WWII vet, he wrote a memoir of the Burma Campaign, which was turned into a movie. He worked for the State Department and was an early critic of the Vietnam insanity. He was a big time “Oxfordian,” those damn fool fantasists who like to think no-account aristo Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare.The “lights” over the door; perhaps my favorite of all architectural details.

Never the same beach twice

The Cliff along Nantucket’s north side is a time-and-tide whittled slice through the north side of the terminal moraine, the long pile of glacial till left over when the ice retreated. Long Island was made the same way, and its north side has cliffs like these, too. The cliff here is eroded by the sea, and the mansions atop it are as permanent as Ozymandias’ shining city in the desert.

A beach makes you think of impermanence.Last year’s Bank swallow nests. No sign of any this year, yet.This one might puzzle you. It’s the snout of a Harbor seal, with the whiskers in remarkably good condition, considering parts of the skull were exposed to bone. Both feet were tagged. I reported this color/number to the New England Aquarium, which is the HQ for the local Marine Mammal Rescue team; the person I talked to there thought this was probably a pup born this winter (although badly decomposed, it did look rather smaller than some other seal remains I’ve come across) and tagged on Muskeget, which is a small island to the west of Nantucket with a thriving Harbor seal population (much to the loathing of local fishermen, who can’t abide competition). Bill of a Great Black-backed Gull, the largest species of gull in the world. Although the underlying structure of the upper and lower mandibles of a bill are bone, they are covered in keratin, nature’s wonder protein.Horseshoe Crab shell, completely cleaned out, perhaps by a Great Black-backed Gull, and posed on the fence by me.Seams of clay run through the cliff, and you find pieces of rock on the beach that look like baked clay, with a lot of iron in them (some nearly sienna in color). I need a geologist to walk this beach with me. The material is easily broken by whacking it against another rock. This piece was riddle with circular tubes, and inside the tubes I could see what turned out to be some kind of bivalve when I broke them open. I guess that they borrowed into clayey mud that later hardened. I also need a conchologist.This pine held on — though dead, it still hangs on, even though most of the cliff has disappeared underneath it. But a few interesting little round fungi were growing on it.


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