Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

A day in the life of a naturalist can reveal some interesting sights - interesting that is, if you can see beyond the gross, the mundane, and the downright weird.  Consider the following …

Some might be repelled when, turning over a piece of wood that has lain on the ground all winter, they find that their fingers have oozed into something slimy and gelatinous. You can tell that you are a naturalist when your “euhewwww” reaction is instantly shifted to a “what is that” reaction, and then you start peering closely and poking into the material. That was my reaction one day early this spring when I found that the underside of a small piece of firewood was covered in what looked like amber Jell-O and a layer of fuzzy mold filaments. I don’t think that I had ever actually seen a jelly fungus before, but I was fairly certain that I was seeing it then.

We live in an age of very helpful technology: I took many digital photographs and then turned to the internet. I have yet to get my hands on a fungus field guide or expert in this group, but what I appeared to have turned over was a colony of jelly fungus from the genus Tremella. Fungi from this genus are parasitic on species of wood-decaying fungi and are thus found in combination with other fungi. They appear on hard woods (such as the choke cherry log in question) that are in early states of decomposition on the ground.

  This beautiful jelly fungus is sometimes called  “brown witches butter.”

This beautiful jelly fungus is sometimes called  “brown witches butter.”

One of the most unusual spring flower forms can be found in Skunk Cabbage. This northern hemisphere native plant starts poking its spathe (sheath) out of snow or frozen ground earlier than most other plants because it produces heat as it begins to grow. Often the air temperature trapped within the spathe can be up to 20 degrees warmer than the outside air temperature.

In its own bizarre way this is truly a beautiful flowering plant with a specialized form. During the course of the early spring, the leaves will grow into quite large leafy fronds ultimately dwarfing the flower. The name comes from the skunk-like odor that emanates from the plant especially when the leaves are crushed.

            On Block Island, I only know one location where skunk cabbage flourishes in spring.

          On Block Island, I only know one location where skunk cabbage flourishes in spring.

  The white eye of the White-eyed vireo gives this bird a demented look. But its unusual eye color makes this bird an easy one to identify. This species of vireo nests on Block Island, and its winter migration may take it as far south as Nicaragua.

The white eye of the White-eyed vireo gives this bird a demented look. But its unusual eye color makes this bird an easy one to identify. This species of vireo nests on Block Island, and its winter migration may take it as far south as Nicaragua.

 

 

 This photo shows the contents of an owl pellet (most likely a barn owl's).

This photo shows the contents of an owl pellet (most likely a barn owl's).

This gorgeous, but macabre, set of skulls, bones and fur is the contents of an owl pellet found along a trail at Clay Head. Thinking that the small grey object was a wad of dried mud and desiccated deer poop, I kicked the pellet aside. But with the force of that little kick the wad crumbled open, revealing at least 2 rat skulls, a lower jaw unit, leg bones, many ribs, at lease one scapula, and lots of matted fur.

Owls eat their prey whole, but cannot digest fur, feathers or bone, so they have developed a neat trick of concentrating the indigestible material into a pellet, which they then expell by regurgitation. 

 

 In this photograph, half of the woodcock's bill is hidden behind the woody trunk.

In this photograph, half of the woodcock's bill is hidden behind the woody trunk.

A lovable-looking little bird, the American woodcock also has features that make it look a little odd. It spends much if its time camouflaged in fields, woody fens, and tucked into the underbrush probing the ground with its long pliable bill for grubs and worms. Its large dark eyes are positioned near the back of the head, giving it more rear directed peripheral vision to help avoid predators while its head is facing downward.

 

 Ten year old Black-capped chickadee - an old friend. 

Ten year old Black-capped chickadee - an old friend. 

Black-capped chickadees are common resident birds on Block Island that can be seen year-round. When I get them in my mist nets, I prepare to deal with their tenacious behavior, as they pinch and peck away at my cuticles with ferocity. They can be a “pain” to deal with, and the reward of banding such a common bird can be limited.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it can also be a matter of perspective. The scraggily Black-capped chickadee shown above was particularly relentless in her attack on my fingers, but her longevity was stunning. This bird was banded in 2006 as a Hatching Year bird (its first year of life), and has been recaptured in the nets 12 times in the last 10 years. In 2011, it was discovered to have a brood patch (bare spot on her breast to facilitate incubation of eggs) ah-ha a female. In successive years, it appeared twice to have an egg in its cloaca (vent) and was obviously ready to lay an egg. In a world where the average life expectancy of a small bird is 3 – 5 years, this ten-year-old bird had transitioned in my mind’s eye from mundane to radiant.