Al Batt: Gnats have been prolific irritant this spring

AL BATT/BLUFF COUNTRY READER I’ve heard the red-headed woodpecker called a flying checkerboard.
By : 
Al Batt
For the Birds

Female buffalo gnats or turkey gnats —the farther north I go, the more they are called black flies — bite chunks from my skin and feed on the blood. They punch above their weight and cause intense reactions and painful itching. The end of May and early June is prime time for these insects that breed in moving water. I feel privileged to see most things. I'm happy I can the see gnats, but I'm never happy to see them.

Birds filled the day with songs until a bass-powered red car drove by and its deafening music drowned out the natural sounds. An indigo bunting sang "Fire; fire; where? where? here; here; see it? see it?" This bird nests in brushy and weedy habitats on the edges of farm fields, woods, roads and railroads. I see nests in raspberry thickets and on corn and ragweed plants.

A red-headed woodpecker visited our feeder. It stores insects, nuts and seeds under bark, in cracks in fenceposts, under shingles, etc. It has many techniques for obtaining food, including catching flying insects and foraging on the ground. It occasionally drills holes in dead trees searching for wood boring larvae, but flying insects are more important in its diet.

I heard the rattle of a belted kingfisher along a dredge ditch. The scientific name for this top-heavy appearing bird is Megaceryle alcyon. Alcyon is an alternative form of halcyon. In Greek mythology, Halcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. She was changed into a kingfisher by other gods. Each winter, Aeolus calms the winds briefly so Halcyone could incubate her eggs on the beach in peace. The expression “halcyon days,” means a time of peace, joy and success.

I listened to a yellow-billed cuckoo's hollow, wooden-sounding croaking call it often gives in response to loud noises. Its tendency to call at the sound of thunder led to its colloquial name, the rain crow. This prodigious eater of caterpillars generally produces a guttural "ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp" on the hot, muggy days tending to engender thunderstorms.

I saw many young European starlings and Canada goose goslings. Both sexes of starlings incubate the eggs for 12 days with the nestlings fledging in 21 to 23 days. There may be a second brood. Canada geese incubate eggs for 25 to 30 days. The goslings leave the nest quickly. One brood. I saw many dead deer on our roads. Many were yearlings pushed away when their mothers were about to drop fawns. I watched a mother groundhog (woodchuck or whistle-pig) in a tree. She was eating mulberry leaves. Groundhogs enjoy those. There were seven kits on the ground feeding on Dutch clovers and dandelions.

Echoes from Loafers’ Club

That guy spends his days looking for something to be offended by.

It takes all kinds.

Yeah? Well, I'm offended by that.

Driving by Bruce's drive

I have a wonderful neighbor named Bruce. Whenever I pass his driveway, thoughts occur to me, such as: I bought gas. It wasn't for me. It was for my car. I went into the convenience store to pay for it because I don't come close to trusting credit card readers on gas pumps as much as I should and a large share of them refuse to produce receipts. I paid with a card and signed my name on a screen. Have you looked at your signature on one of those credit card machines? As I peered at my scrawling signature, I knew it wasn't mine. Oh, it was my name and it appeared to be spelled correctly, but it didn't resemble my signature. Had there been an earthquake? Were my nose hairs on fire? Had someone else signed my name? That was it! It was signed by the same creature whose photo has taken the place of mine on my driver's license.

The cafe chronicles

I'd see him at a local cafe when I was a boy. He was missing a couple of fingers. I assumed it was the result of a farm accident. I tried not to stare at his hand. I'd heard about phantom fingers and wondered if he could still feel the missing digits. He caught me looking at his hand and told me that he'd received a bad manicure at the butcher shop. That stuck with me. I've never once gotten a manicure in a butcher shop.

I had a speaking job in Red Deer, Alberta. I went to a cafe in that fine city. Sadly, I don't recall its name. There were three men seated at a table, each nursing a cup of coffee. I asked if I might sit with them, adding that I didn't want to intrude or drink their coffee. They welcomed me. One said, "Not many people want to sit with us."

They asked where I was from. One asked if we had rats in Minnesota. I thought, "Oh, no! We're going to talk politics."

Instead, the three fine fellows insisted Alberta was free of rats. Alberta has waged a lengthy and vigilant war against the rodents. The province’s Agricultural Pests Act had made it an offense for property owners not to eradicate every rat they encountered. Private citizens may not keep white rats, hooded rats or any of the strains of domesticated Norway rats. White rats can only be kept at zoos, universities and colleges, and recognized research institutions in Alberta. There is a hotline to report rat sightings. I had the feeling they called that hotline the minute I’d left the cafe.

In local news

Man donates a kidney to his brother, who now has three of them.

The world's smallest ball of twine discovered in local man's shed.

Dry cleaners celebrates 50 years of working on the same spot.

Nature notes

I gazed at a wood duck box. Paul Peters of Ceylon told me that he’d seen wood ducklings jumping from a nest box. It’s an amazing thing to witness. A double-crested cormorant was perched with its wings spread on an open branch in order to dry its feathers after fishing. Cormorant feathers become soaked rather than shedding water like those of a duck. This is thought to help cormorants hunt underwater more effectively. Cormorants regurgitate pellets containing undigested parts of their meals such as bones just as an owl does. 

Molt migration is when nonbreeding Canada geese and those that had failed at nesting fly northward in late May and early June, heading to remote waters, where they molt their flight feathers and feed on vegetation in an earlier state of growth to fuel the molt. They summer there and fly back here in September and October. Five weeks after the goslings hatch here, the adults molt, which renders them flightless until the goslings can fly at 9 to 10 weeks of age. That’s usually during the second half of July. Goslings are precocial. They hatch with eyes open, covered with down and leave the nest promptly. All passerines, such as robins, hatch with eyes closed, wearing little or no down, incapable of departing from the nest and are fed by the parents. The chicks of most songbirds (passerines) spend less time maturing in the egg and must spend more time developing in the nest. 


"Why do I see so many dead raccoons on the roads?"

The simple answer is because of cars. A raccoon can run 15 mph, giving it little chance in a race with a Lexus. The raccoons are out at night, hunting garbage cans. It's foraging for food that brings about the collisions. During the mating season (late winter and early spring), male raccoons travel long distances and mate with many females. After a 63-day gestation period, the female has her litter of two to six young — most born in May. The cubs (or kits) are weened at 7-16 weeks of age and become independent when they are 8 to 12 months old.

"Do you ever call birds by their full scientific names?"

Only when I'm angry with them.

"Do tanagers eat bees?"

Bees and wasps comprise the bulk of a summer tanager’s diet. Summer tanagers, a rare summer visitor here, snatch a bee and bludgeon it on a branch. The scarlet tanager is much more common and eats bees and wasps, but isn't as noted for bee consumption as are summer tanagers. They hover in the air and catch bees and wasps, then press the insects into a branch to kill them.

Meeting adjourned

“Happiness is a byproduct of an effort to make someone else happy.” – Gretta Palmer

Thanks for stopping by

"When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see." — Baltasar Gracian

"We have grown dull toward this world in which we live; we have forgotten that it is not normal or scientific in any sense of the word. It is fantastic. It is fairy tale through and through. Really now. Elephants? Caterpillars? Snow? At what point did you lose your wonder at it all?” ― John Eldredge


© Al Batt 2019