Authors Posts by Matt Pelikan

Matt Pelikan

Matt Pelikan
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Experience a multitude of seasonal cues.

On many winter days, bicycling offers a chance to notice subtle seasonal changes. – Photo by Kristofer Rabasca

OK, it’s true that late January is an odd time to write about bicycling on the Vineyard. But there are good reasons why the topic is on my mind.

In addition to my lifelong fascination with nature, I’ve loved bicycling since before the training wheels came off. I’ve raced bikes, cross-trained on them, toured on bikes, ridden them for fun, and now I’m a year-round commuter on two wheels. And as I try to cut back my use of fossil fuels, more and more of my interaction with nature involves two-wheel transport.

From the naturalist’s perspective, biking has three main sources of appeal. The first I just mentioned: If you’re concerned about the ecological health of the planet, finding alternatives to petroleum-powered transport starts to look like an ethical duty. But the other two reasons have a lot more to do with fun.

For one thing, a bike is faster than walking but more flexible than a car. On the Vineyard, some of the most interesting places for a naturalist to visit are out of reach of a car, but large enough so the speed of a bike is a convenience. The state forest, in particular, lends itself to bike-bound naturalizing, with a network of fire lanes that are manageable even on a road bike and easily traversed by a hybrid or mountain bike. At well over 5,000 acres, the state forest is far too large to cover in a day by walking. You won’t cover all the fire lanes on a bike, either, but you can survey a lot more habitat on wheels than on your feet.

But the main advantage of a bike is that it leaves you much more connected to your surroundings than a car does. Released from your sheet-metal cage, traveling at a slower and more civilized velocity, you can see, hear, and smell the natural world from a bike. You can feel subtle changes in microclimate. How much you actually detect, of course, depends on your skill as a naturalist, and it’s a regrettable fact that the ability to read nature, like any other sophisticated ability, takes time and effort to develop. But whatever your skill level, you’ll notice more while biking than driving. I’ve been naturalizing as long as I’ve been biking: with a birder’s ears and a sharp eye for bugs, I have no problem identifying bird songs or spotting, sometimes even identifying, roadside butterflies as I ride.

Which brings me to late January, a point in the year that my naturalist self finds especially stimulating. The days are lengthening, and the rate at which they get longer is accelerating (it peaks at the spring equinox). The air is warming: We’ve passed the statistically coldest date of the winter (around Jan. 20), and while there is plenty of cold yet to come, the trend is irrevocably toward milder air (and better biking weather).

And the natural world responds to these cues — subtly at first, then not so subtly, as birds, plants, insects, and other wild neighbors start to tool up for the season of growth and reproduction. Every season, this process catches me a little bit by surprise, and each little sign of the progress of the season lifts my spirits.

In effect, my daily commute represents a repeated sampling of how the season is progressing along my route. I’ve already heard my first chickadee, titmouse, and house finch songs; soon cardinals will be tuning up; and the sonic landscape will, day by day, grow richer and more interesting. New birds will arrive. Plants will break dormancy. Insects will emerge. As the weather improves, I’ll starting taking the scenic route home sometimes, adding in a few miles of state forest bike path or back roads. A high percentage of my “firsts for the year” will be seen or heard as I spin silently along on my bike.

Honestly, year-round bike commuting is not for everyone. Some winter days can actually be comfortable for a short ride with appropriate clothing on, but many days are not: bicycling in 15 degrees and a strong headwind is unpleasant, period. And riding in rain or snow requires either fortitude that goes beyond even my own, or else the option of driving to work or working from home.

But for anybody who enjoys observing nature and can handle a few miles on a bike, I’d strongly suggest looking for chances to combine the two. And think about starting on a nice late winter day, as the world is waking up. You can bring binoculars, field guides, and a camera in a bag or backpack. You can cover a lot of ground. And you can feel sure that you’re experiencing a multitude of seasonal cues being missed by the folks in the metal boxes.

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How does a bird like an oriole, essentially a tropical species that disperses northward to breed during the summer, handle the deep freeze?

Winter, generally speaking, is a season I could live without. But I’ve always had a fascination with the ways wildlife responds to adversity, and the early January cold snap represented a fine opportunity to contemplate this subject. After several days of merely cold weather, the mercury bottomed out on the night of Wednesday, Jan. 7. Our porch thermometer in Oak Bluffs dipped to slightly below zero before sunrise Thursday morning; reports from elsewhere on the Island suggested that virtually the entire Vineyard hit zero or below.

My first thoughts were for a particular bird implausibly lingering at this latitude: a first-year male Baltimore oriole that has been frequenting feeders in West Tisbury for several weeks now. A familiar sight and sound on the Vineyard in summer, when they nest in deciduous trees across the Island, Baltimore orioles are ill equipped for winter. With long, pointed beaks, they’re optimized for eating insects, and struggle to eat the seeds that represent the bulk of the available food supply in winter.

Accordingly, orioles are strongly migratory. The heart of their winter range is Central America, though the species is regular in Florida and the West Indies in winter. But oddly, the Baltimore oriole is a bird that has always been prone to lingering in the North in small numbers, and in recent years, it seems like this imprudent behavior is growing more common. Perhaps not quite annual on the Vineyard in early winter, Baltimore orioles are approaching that degree of regularity, and the sight of one of these orange avian gems in early January is no longer much of a surprise.

The West Tisbury bird (it seems that only one individual was involved) was reported from several feeding stations, eating suet and doing its best with seeds. The last report I heard came from early on the morning of Jan. 8, so it survived the night of the deepest cold. Whether it lived beyond that is not clear, and even if it did, it may have relocated. So we may never know its fate.

How does a bird like an oriole, essentially a tropical species that disperses northward to breed during the summer, handle the deep freeze? The availability of a reliable food source, preferably with high-energy options like suet, is surely a critical element. Given enough calories to keep its internal furnace running, a bird can withstand surprisingly low temperatures, and the kindhearted birders providing food for the West Tisbury oriole were surely keeping it alive.

The real sticking point for such a bird is nighttime, when the temperatures dip to their lowest and when

How does a bird like an oriole, essentially a tropical species that disperses northward to breed during the summer, handle the deep freeze?
-Photo by David Brezinski, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

protracted darkness makes it difficult or impossible to forage for ten hours or so at a time. About the only thing an oriole or similar species can do to survive the night is hunker down in a sheltered spot, fluffing out its feathers for maximum insulation and probably settling down on its perch so that its bare legs and feet, vulnerable to frostbite, are covered by belly feathers. At first light, feeding as heavily as possible is critical, and if conditions allow, soaking up whatever warmth can be gleaned from the winter sun is a help.

So much for the how; the other question is why? Migrants that linger into winter are often injured or sick birds, not fit for undertaking the journey south. But many, perhaps most, of the birds like the West Tisbury oriole appear perfectly healthy, and it seems probable that they simply lack the instinctive impulses that should trigger migration. The outcome of failing to migrate is usually not a happy one for the individual bird. But from the larger perspective of an entire species, defective instincts are probably a good thing: that’s the sort of variation that allows a species to adapt to climate change or the loss of traditional wintering areas, with the occasional misdirected bird surviving to discover new sites or strategies for surviving the cold months. Defective migrants, in other words, may be part of the evolutionary strategy of birds.

Interestingly, some species are more prone to linger than others. The orchard oriole, for example, is a close relative of the more common Baltimore oriole, but unlike the latter species it is almost unheard of in the Northeast in early winter (though it often turns up on the West Coast as a vagrant). Likewise among the warblers, some species, such as black-throated blue warbler, seem to linger with some regularity, while others — say, bay-breasted — seem to bail out for warmer climes with complete reliability. To some extent, migratory patterns may explain the differences, with the species that winter farthest to the south least prone to linger. But in the absence of actual records, it would be hard to predict reliably which species would be most likely at our latitude in winter.

In any event, I’m rooting for the West Tisbury oriole. He’s got high-quality food sources and even a few heated birdbaths available, if he can find them. And he’s demonstrated great tenacity and resourcefulness — even if he missed the memo on migration.

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Is it a spear? Some sort of ancient weaponry? And where might its owner be? – Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

The great outdoors can produce baffling mysteries. MVTimes Wild Side columnist Matt Pelikan tries his best to solve them. Got a question for the Wild Side? Send it to onisland@mvtimes.com.

Dear Matt,

Found this on the beach behind my office. When I brought it in and showed it around, I was surprised how many people had no guesses as to what it is. An interesting find! My question is, are horseshoe crabs in trouble or what? I know their mating is monitored and also that they are chopped up for bait by the truckload at a Vineyard Haven business. What’s the deal?

Hi,

As menacing as this object looks, it’s a harmless piece of the anatomy of an equally harmless arthropod, the horseshoe crab. Not actually crabs, these odd-looking animals are more closely related to terrestrial spiders. There are four species worldwide; ours, the Atlantic horseshoe crab, occurs on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Named for its overall body shape, the horseshoe crab is one of the most ancient creatures still extant, with a lineage dating back about 450 million years.

The aftermost body segment of these primitive sea creatures, the spike-like “tail,” or telson, guides, stabilizes, and helps right a horseshoe crab as it skims over the sea floor (often upside down!). The telson may also contain sensory organs to help the crab keep tabs on surrounding conditions. But the spike plays no role at all in self-defense, and indeed, except for its robust shell and a fringe of small, movable spines along its back edges, a horseshoe crab is defenseless.

Or you might say that being prolific is the defense strategy of the species. Horseshoe crab eggs are eaten in large quantities by a wide range of other animals, and young crabs are likewise tempting prey. But horseshoe crabs are highly prolific — they simply lay enough eggs, about 80,000 per female according to most sources — so that some are sure to escape being eaten. And by concentrating their egg-laying into narrow time windows, horseshoe crabs overwhelm the ability of predators to consume eggs. Mature crabs come ashore to spawn primarily around full and new moons (associated with particular high tides) in spring, mating and laying eggs near the wrack line.

Though horseshoe crabs have survived ice ages, mass extinctions, and the evolution of advanced predators, overharvest by humans (spawning crabs can simply be picked up off the beach) has threatened their survival in some regions. Horseshoe crab blood is a valuable resource for the biomedical industry, and for years crabs were harvested and drained of their blood. Current methods are less lethal — the crabs are generally caught, partially bled while still alive, and released; survival is said to be high, but the process must surely stress the crabs. On the Vineyard, horseshoe crabs are harvested mainly to be cut into bait for the conch pot-fishery, said to be the Island’s most valuable fishery.

Since other animals feed heavily on crabs and crab eggs, the decline in horseshoe crab numbers has echoed through the marine ecosystem. In particular, migrant shorebirds traveling along the East Coast of North America rely on crab eggs for fuel, timing and routing their migration to exploit the spawning cycle of the crabs (most notably along the shores of Delaware Bay). Without enough crab eggs to feed on, these birds may be unable to complete their northward migration, or, if they can reach their Arctic breeding grounds, they may have insufficient energy reserves for successful reproduction.

Horseshoe crab conservation measures, such as prohibiting harvest at the times of peak spawning or prohibiting the taking of females, have been put in place in several key states and may reverse the decline of these interesting and ancient animals, in turn helping to conserve shorebird populations. But horseshoe crabs mature slowly, not spawning until they’re nine or 10 years old, according to Island naturalist Suzy Bowman. So a meaningful rebound of the crab population may take some time.

Since 2008, numbers of spawning horseshoe crabs have been monitored at a couple of key Vineyard spawning sites as part of a larger effort coordinated by the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries. Ms. Bowman, who helped get the Vineyard effort up and running, says that the count of spawning crabs along the Lake Tashmoo and Sengekontacket shorelines may still be declining (though the data are not conclusive). While acknowledging the economic importance of harvesting (or bleeding) horseshoe crabs, the Wild Side perspective is that these ancient arthropods play critical roles in the inshore marine ecosystem, and management to ensure their recovery and survival is essential.

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Photo by Sarah Mayhew

The start of the new year coincides with the closest we ever come to a true pause in the movement of birds through our region. Fall migration has ended, though a few disoriented individuals or stragglers may still be wandering. And the first inkling of spring migration, in the form of incoming red-winged blackbirds or northbound ducks, is still a month or so in the future.

But there is no such thing as true stasis in the bird world, and indeed, the first days of January are as good a time as any to hope for the arrival of our most interesting avian visitors. A good example would be the dovekie, a tiny but incredibly hardy seabird that is rarely seen on the Vineyard, but has lately put in an appearance.

Dovekies are members of the auk family (the European name for the same species is “little auk”). Like other auks, the dovekie is strongly associated with oceanic habitats: sea cliffs in Greenland, Iceland, northernmost Europe, and arctic islands during the breeding season, and cold Atlantic waters, generally north (sometimes far north) of the 42nd parallel in winter. [Martha’s Vineyard Airport is at 41.39 degrees N.]

Abundant birds, dovekies are estimated to number in the millions. But their maritime lifestyle keeps them in remote regions and, usually, far from land except when they’re nesting; it’s easy for a Vineyard birder to go for years without seeing one. But photos have recently been taken of dovekies at Menemsha, Lambert’s Cove, and Vineyard Haven harbor, and a dead one was found on land at Cedar Tree Neck. A spate of other sightings in southern New England suggest that this may be a good year for finding this odd bird.

Like many other kinds of seabirds, dovekies are subject to being driven far off course by storms. When coastal storms coincide with a robust movement of dovekies, hundreds of these birds may be blown far inland, where many or most perish from exhaustion, starvation, and an unfortunate inability to get airborne once they’ve landed on a hard, flat surface.

But storms don’t account for all the wanderings of this species. Dovekies have turned up many hundred of miles south of their normal wintering range, often with no indication that bad weather accounted for their occurrence. And sometimes mass movements of these birds have been observed from coastal vantage points under fine conditions. However they gain it, dovekies obviously have a sophisticated understanding of geography and are capable of prodigious movements in search of resources.

Dovekie-Menemsha -Sarah Mayhew-2.jpgBlack-and-white, barely eight inches long and a foot across the spread wings, and weighing in at about six ounces, a dovekie is about the size and build of a mourning dove missing its long tail feathers. Like all the auks, a stocky family, dovekies are marginal aerialists, able to keep aloft only through comically frantic wing-beats. Nesting on sea cliffs, they take off by plunging toward the water to build air speed, and taking off from water requires a long take-off run.

But in the water, it’s another story. Dovekies, like all the auks, spread their wings to “fly” underwater and a dovekie can dive to more than 100 feet and stay submerged for several minutes if it feels the need. In effect, they’ve followed the same evolutionary route of the penguins, only not quite as far: auks retain the ability to fly, but their true home is in saltwater. It’s hard to believe, but millions of these tiny birds survive winter on the frigid waters of the North Atlantic each year, often without ever setting sight on land.

One secret to the success of the dovekie is probably the dietary preference of this species. They are known to feed primarily on plankton, especially the tiny but not truly microscopic arthropods that make up the lower rungs of the marine food chain. Focused on a plentiful and widespread food supply, dovekies may have an advantage over their larger relatives, most of which focus on fish — a less evenly distributed and less dependable food source.

Oddly, the birds recently photographed on the Vineyard were feeding on Atlantic silversides, schooling fish that range up to about five inches in length. This food choice is hardly unprecedented in dovekies, which are opportunistic and frequently include small fish in their diet. But the presence of these birds inshore, and in areas rich in bait fish, make one wonder whether something has happened to the offshore plankton supplies that would normally be sustaining these birds.

How long the species will linger here is anyone’s guess and hopefully at least one will stay for this weekend’s Christmas Bird Count! But Island birders are happy to have an opportunity, however brief, to search for this hardy, mysterious bird.

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A northern gannet carries a bit of nest-building material. As big as geese, gannets make a tremendous splash when they hit the water pursuing fish. —Photo courtesy of Andreas Trepte

It’s not just your magic carpet to the Land of Cheaper Gasoline! If you’re a naturalist without a boat, a Steamship Authority ferry is also…well, a boat.

To be sure, there are limitations. With a fixed schedule and a fixed route, the Great White Fleet never visits the vast majority of our region’s waters. The boat will not slow down or circle to provide a better look at something interesting. And of course you can count on sharing the ferry with several hundred of your closest friends.

But a boat of any kind is better than no boat at all. Oceans are always interesting, and it’s a rare trip between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven that doesn’t produce at least some viewable wildlife. Sometimes one even gets lucky and happens onto a rarity or a noteworthy spectacle.

It’s primarily bird life that naturalists look for from the ferry. Though herring gulls are dirt common on the Vineyard, they are imposing, graceful birds, and it is rare SSA run that doesn’t attract couple of gulls begging for handouts (or snatching an unattended snack from the weather deck). And for the photographically inclined, a ferry ride presents an unbeatable opportunity for capturing the nuances of a gull in flight.

Similarly, pigeons and house sparrows are common birds, but their habit of scavenging out the ferries sometimes offers an exceptional chance to view or even interact with these birds. (One of my own surprisingly intimate encounters with a pigeon was recorded in a previous Wild Side column, published Nov. 20, 2012, “A common pigeon asks for help on a Martha’s Vineyard ferry boat”). But less mundane avian life is also possible. Perhaps the best bird I’ve seen from a Steamship Authority ferry was a Manx shearwater, slicing the air near the red No. 2 buoy in the Vineyard Haven outer harbor on an unnaturally warm March day in 1998. True pelagic species such as shearwaters are always rare in the enclosed waters of Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, but some other seabirds can be downright common.

From late fall through early spring, seeing a northern gannet is always possible, and sometimes, scores or even hundreds can be viewed. Goose-sized birds with long wings and pointed beaks, gannets typically feed by plunging into the water after fish or squid. Dropping as much as 100 feet in their dive, gannets hit the water like cannonballs, and the spectacle of a flock feeding close to the ferry is worth the price of admission — even if you’re paying off-Island car rates!

Almost as much fun to watch are common and roseate terns, which arrive in late April or early May, often forming huge feeding flocks near the ferry route before the birds disperse to their breeding colonies. Roseate terns in particular are a treat — graceful, snow-white birds and a relatively rare regional specialty. I know of many birders who have tallied their “life” roseate tern from the weather deck of a Vineyard ferry.

In winter, sea ducks and loons are a given on any ferry ride: scoters (we have three species, all hefty, dark seabirds), common eiders (massive ducks, with brown females and black-and-white males), or tiny buffleheads. Look for ducks especially at the Woods Hole end; loons, in contrast, can appear anywhere along the route, and often allow close views, since they often grow accustomed to the passing of the large ferry boats.

Less regularly seen birds sometimes reward on-deck vigilance. Green herons are sometimes visible shuttling between Naushon and the mainland; a pair of ospreys nests nearly every year right next to the Woods Hole ferry terminal; razorbills (small black-and-white auks) are fairly regular in winter; and if you get really lucky, you might spot a peregrine falcon, bald eagle, or other raptor crossing the water in search of fertile hunting grounds.

On the non-avian front, one wants to stay alert for insects during the warmer months. Once or twice, I’ve spotted a monarch butterfly from the ferry. And one day, a long dash skipper (a tiny butterfly) flew aboard just before an Oak Bluffs departure, perched in a sunny spot, and patiently rested and groomed until the approach to Woods Hole, when it took flight toward the mainland. The experience taught me that fare-evading insects sometimes use the ferry as a link to leave or travel to the Vineyard.

If there is one disappointment inherent in ferry naturalizing, it’s the relative paucity of marine life that’s visible. I’ve never seen any whale, dolphin, or porpoise from the boat; cetaceans rarely enter the shallow, restricted waters along the ferry route. However, harbor and occasionally gray seals are visible on the rocks at Woods Hole. Tremendous flotillas of jellyfish are sometimes visible. And when conditions are right, it’s sometimes possible to see massive blooms of plankton, rendering the ocean milky with a host of tiny plants and animals.

It’s not like having your own tuna boat ready for a “canyon run” whenever you feel the urge. But an SSA ferry provides a stable viewing platform, a warm interior if you get chilled, and — best of all — an easy way to get on the water.

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Though it shows a species that doesn't occur on the Vineyard, this photo of a winter crane fly perched on snow illustrates the hardiness and delicate structure of these insects, which look like mosquitoes. —Photo courtesy of James K. Lindsey

The first hard frost of the season — and the Island, by this point, has experienced several — marks a major change in the natural world. Wildlife unequipped to deal with sub-freezing temperatures has departed, gone dormant, or died. This means that the plants and animals still active here are members of a select club — organisms that have evolved specialized physiology or behavior that make cold temperatures tolerable.

Indeed, in the case of certain insects that are active in winter, temperatures around freezing aren’t just tolerable, they’re actively preferred. For these species, it’s warm weather, with its associated risk of overheating and desiccation, that is the danger.

If you keep a close eye on your porch light during the coming weeks, you may be able to spot a sterling example of this unusual lifestyle. December is peak season on the Vineyard for winter crane flies, a small, highly specialized group adapted to life in cold climates. Long-legged and seemingly fragile, adult winter crane are often attracted to lights, which makes them easy to find and observe.

Crane flies in general resemble oversized mosquitoes, which in fact are fairly close relatives of this group. But winter crane flies are in a different family — Trichoceridae — than our more familiar warm-weather crane flies. In addition to their penchant for cold, winter crane flies are distinguished from their summertime relatives by small size (about a half-inch long), the arrangement of the veins in their wing, and the presence of tiny light-sensing organs, called “ocelli,” on top of their heads (other crane flies lack these).

Trichoceridae is a small family, little studied even by entomologists. World-wide, about 160 species exist (next to nothing for a fly family); fewer than 30 species inhabit North America, most of them in a single genus, Trichocera. I don’t know how many species occur on the Vineyard; quite possibly there’s only one. Identification of this group, when it’s possible, depends on dissecting their genitalia under a microscope, and it’s not even clear that an adequate identification key exists for our region.

Whatever their precise identity, winter crane fly adults begin turning up at lights in mid-November and can be found in moderate weather through the winter. They never seem to be numerous, if the numbers turning up my lights are any indication, but they don’t seem fussy about habitat and are probably possible at any porch light on the Island. Despite the low temperatures, males and females manage to find each other to mate (some species reportedly concentrate into mating swarms, though I’ve never observed this).

Little else is known about their reproductive lives: eggs hatch in late winter or spring, larvae are scavengers that feed on decaying vegetation, and after a brief period of pupation, adults emerge again in fall. The small amount of research available on these insects suggests that winter crane flies are very flexible in the timing of their life cycle: larvae and pupae can speed up or slow down their development in response to changing conditions, and presumably do so in order to emerge as adults when conditions are most favorable for mating.

One area of study that has been pursued with these insects is their ability to function in the cold, which is truly remarkable. Some species have survived temperatures well below zero, and many are fully active and capable of flying in temperatures several degrees below the freezing point of water. Ours seem happiest in temperatures from the 30s to the upper 40s; when temperatures approach 60, adults risk overheating and are unlikely to be active.

The muscle tissues in these insects have probably evolved to contract well at low temperatures. And winter crane flies, like most other low-temperature insects, produce natural antifreeze: proteins that lower the freezing point of water and help prevent ice crystals from forming. The real risk to an insect in freezing conditions comes not so much from the cold itself, which a bug can often just sleep through, but from the formation of ice crystals within body tissues. These pointed crystals can pierce cell walls or damage cell organelles, and if you can keep the crystals from forming, cold weather survival becomes much easier.

As with other crane flies, adult winter crane flies have rudimentary mouth parts and eat little or nothing. Indeed, while they may have lively times when they’re out of sight, the ones I’ve seen appear to do little more than perch on a wall or window screen, waiting for a potential mate to arrive.

Given their quiet habits, obscurity, and seasonality, I don’t foresee a Trichoceridae fan club forming. These are not charismatic insects, and their roles in the ecosystem, as scavengers and not doubt sometimes as prey, are ordinary and probably easily filled by other species. But to my mind, there’s something elegant about an insect designed to flourish when all the world is frozen.

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A ring-necked duck in Mill Pond, 2010. —Photo by Sarah Mayhew

Telling someone where they can find a particular kind of bird is always risky. Birds move around a lot, and even if they’re where you say they should be, they often don’t cooperate by being visible or audible. So I really appreciate a reliable critter like the ring-necked duck, which allows a pronouncement like this one: if you bring your binoculars to the pond at Cranberry Acres, the exquisite little Vineyard Open Land Foundation preserve off Lambert’s Cove Road, any day over the next few weeks, it’s virtually certain that you can get a good look at a ring-necked duck. (But approach quietly, or that look will likely be of airborne birds, rapidly receding.)

They’re worth seeing, though. The males especially, now that they’re emerging from their brief post-breeding “eclipse” plumage, are singularly handsome ducks, with white flanks, dark backs, and iridescent purple heads. The duller females are also attractive in an understated way, brownish overall but echoing the two-toned body pattern of the males. Delicate white “spectacle” markings and a pale area around the base of the bill help distinguish female ring-necked ducks from other female waterfowl.

The overall effect is much like a scaup, or “bluebill.” But the solidly black back of a ring-necked duck is clearly darker than that of a scaup, and scaup (around the Island at least) prefer the sea or the great ponds to the shallow, interior ponds preferred by the ring-neck, which have boldly patterned bills, with a white ring adjacent to a dark tip.

But don’t get your hopes for seeing the eponymous neck ring: for reasons lost in ornithological history, like the ludicrously misnamed red-bellied woodpecker, this duck is named for a mark that is generally invisible in the field, a dull golden band at the base of the male’s neck. But both sexes feature a noticeable peak or crest on the head, and even in bad light, this structural feature will help identify a ring-necked duck.

For reasons best known to the ducks themselves, the pond at Cranberry Acres is a favorite location for these waterfowl as they move south on fall migration. They turn up in other ponds, too, and occasionally even on saltwater around the Island. But some historical accounts of this species note a tendency to favor some ponds over others, seemingly similar ones nearby, and this is definitely the case on the Vineyard. Cranberry Acres almost always has a flock at the appropriate season, and these flocks can be large: I’ve seen more than 30 individuals here. The first fall migrants may turn up as early as September; they’ll likely remain until the pond freezes and forces them farther south.

Ring-necked ducks have never struck me as especially wary. But their fondness for small ponds often means that you can’t see them until you’re quite close. So the first glimpse you get is often of a small flock taking wing in response to your presence. Capable fliers equipped for long migration, ring-necked ducks leap into the air without the running take-off of a scaup. The whistling sound of their wings as they take flight is a sound that I associate strongly with late autumn (and — a useful field mark — the wings lack the extensive white on the top side that characterize the two species of scaup).

The genus to which the ring-necked duck belongs contains some prodigious divers, like the canvasback and the two scaup species. And, to be sure, a ring-necked duck can dive perfectly well. But whether on its breeding grounds, during migration, or in its winter range in the southern United States, coastal Mexico, or the Caribbean, ring-necked ducks generally frequent shallow, weedy bodies of water where diving isn’t an especially useful talent. Ring-necks often feed by tipping their tails up like mallards, or even just picking up food or prey items from the water surface as they swim.

As with many kinds of waterfowl, their diets depend mainly on what’s readily available: aquatic vegetation, seeds, insects and insect larvae, and even occasionally frogs or salamanders. Cranberry Acres is a prolific breeding area for dragonflies, and it may be that an abundance of overwintering dragonfly larvae on the pond bottom is part of what brings these ducks to this pond so reliably.

A fairly numerous species that breeds in a wide swath across Canada and the northern tier of the United States, ring-necked ducks are generally in Massachusetts only during fall migration, and for an ever briefer visit in early spring. There are a few breeding records for the Bay State, though, and it wouldn’t surprise me too much if a pair of this species lingered to breed some spring, at Cranberry Acres or perhaps in a swampy cove head on a great pond. They’re versatile birds, clearly more focused on finding the resources they need than on playing by particular rules.

Ring-necked ducks are regular in small numbers on the Vineyard Christmas Bird Count, and as our winters grow progressively milder, these ducks are likely to grow more regular and more numerous in the winter months. I won’t complain; they’re lovely birds, and even having them here just for the autumn is a fine thing.

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Leaf miners left their lacy trails on this columbine leaf. —Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

The great outdoors can produce baffling mysteries. MVTimes Wild Side columnist Matt Pelikan tries his best to solve them. Got a question for the Wild Side? Send it to onisland@mvtimes.com.

Dear Matt:

What did this to my columbine plant?

– D.Z.

Dear D.Z.:

These damaged leaves most probably show the work of a columbine leaf miner, the larva of a tiny fly in the genus Phytomyza. This pest (if you want to view it that way) appears to be quite widespread and common, and it’s hard to grow columbine (Aquilegia) without attracting at least a few of these insects. Severe infestations can weaken or, conceivably, even kill a columbine plant, but in most cases no permanent damage is done and the only negative impact is seen on the leaves, such this one, which might have pale, winding tracks on them. Depending on how bad the infestation is, and your tolerance for partially eaten leaves, you can remove leaves that you see affected by leaf miners, or you can do nothing, taking some satisfaction in the fact that your garden is supporting an interesting insect. Because they are enclosed within the leaf, using chemicals to control leaf miners is hard to do (and I recommend against using insecticides at all unless you have a really compelling reason).

More generally, leaf mining is an interesting strategy used by an astonishing array of insects. The majority of leaf mining insects are probably flies (there is one whole family of flies that specializes in leaf mining). But certain types of moths, beetles, and wasps have developed the same lifestyle for their larvae. If you know what you’re doing (and unfortunately, I don’t) you can often identify a leaf miner by the shape of its tunnels. Also, there is a very close association between a particular leaf-mining insect and a particular species of plant. So identifying the plant that is being mined is a good way to start on identifying the leaf miner itself.

The advantages of being a leaf miner are clear: you’re totally immersed in your food supply, as you crawl your way between the top and bottom cuticles of the leaf. And the tough, outermost layer of cells on the leaf offer some protection against predators, desiccation, and pathogens. The adult form of a leaf miner, though, is as vulnerable as any other free-living insect, and naturally occurring predators and parasites generally keep leaf miner populations controlled to a reasonable level.

Southern New England is lucky to have an entomologist who is one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about leaf miners. Charlie Eiseman, though based in western Massachusetts, has done extensive work on leaf miners and other obscure insects on Nantucket. Charlie has written a book, Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates, that touches on leaf miners, and he’s working on a book entirely devoted to these highly specialized insects. His website, charlieeiseman.com, is worth checking out if you have an interest in the more bizarre branches of the insect world.

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Sonograms of about a half-second of two insect calls, one unknown from my yard and the other a known Carolina ground cricket from the Singing Insects of North America website. —Photo by Matt Pelikan

For many kinds of animals, hearing may be more important than vision, especially for governing social interactions. Birds, for example, have excellent eyesight, generally much better than ours, but the social world of many birds is more a world of sound than of vision. Their call notes maintain contact with associates, convey alarm, or express levels of arousal; their songs attract mates and mark the limits of territory.

Birders long ago realized that knowing the sounds made by different species was a powerful identification method, and accomplished birders can reliably identify hundreds of species by their songs and call. After all, it’s how the birds sort themselves out!

A basic insect recording rig. —Photo by Matt Pelikan
A basic insect recording rig. —Photo by Matt Pelikan

In the insect world, likewise, vision may be crucial for avoiding danger, locating food, or dodging obstacles while in flight. But some groups of insects have evolved complex anatomical structures aimed at producing sound for social purposes. The cricket calling in your yard is a male, advertising his presence to rivals and potential mates alike. If the weather is warm enough, the cricket may call nearly continuously for days on end, investing a high percentage of his energy into making noise.

The structures involved in insect sound production vary from group to group, but for crickets and katydids, the mechanism is a simple one. These insects rub rough areas at the bases of their wings together. The resulting scratches resonate across the leathery forewings of the insect, gaining volume, and some species also position themselves on leaves (sometimes dry, dead ones) so as to broadcast still more loudly.

But unlike the sound-producing mechanisms of a songbird or human, the so-called stridulatory apparatus of a cricket allows for very little variation. These insects have about as much flexibility in their sound-making as you do when you run your fingers along the teeth of comb. You can move your finger faster or slower, but you have almost no control over the pitch or tone of the teeth as you pluck them. The noise an insect produces, in other words, is largely determined by the configuration of its stridulatory structure. And since those structures vary from species to species, the sound you hear is in a sense a representation of certain details of the insect’s anatomy.

As a birder who has branched out into insect observation, I inevitably began trying to learn the songs of bugs. Some calls I’ve learned the hard way, tracing them to their source and then visually identifying the singer. But it’s also possible to learn songs from recordings, which are available on websites such as Singing Insects of North America (entnemdept.ufl.edu/walker/buzz) and Cornell University’s Macaulay Library (macaulaylibrary.org/), or on CDs that accompany some insect field guides.

Simply listening to recordings of known identity is one good way to learn insect calls; the human ear, as any musician will tell you, is a sensitive and discriminating instrument. But I’m also interested in using recording insect songs to produce physical documentation of the presence of different species. Moreover, because the production of sound is so central to the biology of crickets and katydids, I believe that analysis of their calls can help us understand the relationships among insect populations. Differences in the anatomy of insects will translate to differences in the sounds they produce, and careful enough examination of enough songs may lead to discoveries that other methods of observation have overlooked.

I’m currently experimenting with a field recording rig consisting of a basic “shotgun” microphone (designed to focus on sound coming from a very small area), a small digital audio recorder, and a set of cheap headphones to monitor the recording process. Good results are not easy to achieve: even with the shotgun mic, you need quiet, windless conditions and a close-range “listen” to get good recordings. But with care and patience, you can generally capture a few seconds of clean sound.

I use a free program called Audacity, a basic sound file editor, to snip out the best five or six seconds of a recording. Then I process the resulting file in another program, Raven Lite, to produce a graphical representation, called a sonogram, of the sound. (Raven Lite is available for free from the above-mentioned Macaulay Library website.) Sonograms have been used for years to visually portray bird songs, and more recently to illustrate the calls of bats. But the advent of digital sound formats, approachable processing software, and inexpensive recording equipment has made sonogram analysis available to amateur observers like me.

With the graphical representation of a song in front of you, you can see the timing of individual pulses of sound, examine their shape, determine what the primary frequency of the song is, and discern whether there are overtones or undertones. By comparing an unknown song to sonograms made from identified songs, you can find a good match and put a name to your anonymous singer. In effect, this technology allows you to eavesdrop on insects, capturing their conversations in a form that makes sense to a human mind.

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Even when they’re out of sight and out of mind, ants carry on with their important work.

Solenopsis molesta, a tiny, common species sometimes called the thief ant, magnified 30 times, shot through a microscope ocular. —Photo by Matt Pelikan

Suddenly, swarms of mysterious flying insects! First, I received a report of robust swarm of airborne bugs in Chilmark. Then another report came from an Aquinnah beach, and finally ace bird photographer Lanny McDowell posted a photo in a Vineyard birding Facebook group of a mockingbird inundated in a small but dense swarm of insects. Though that’s only three such reports, that’s three more than I’ve ever received in one season, and I surmise that this has been a good fall for this phenomenon. Perhaps the recent weather pattern — an extended dry spell followed by several heavy rains — prompted a burst of this activity.

First, it should be noted that lots of types of insects congregate into flying swarms, and they do it for several reasons. In particular, many types of midges (a group within the very large order of flies) often emerge from their larval state at once, in massive hatches. Such swarms are essentially insect singles bars — aggregations of individuals seeking to mate. Or sometimes, intent on feeding rather than flirtation, you may find a swarm of hundreds of dragonflies, convened where air currents concentrate prey.

The recent reports, though, didn’t sound to me like midges, nor yet like dragonflies. Happily, the observer in Chilmark managed to snag a few individuals out of the swarm she observed, and ran them by my office for examination under a dissecting microscope. And Lanny’s photograph showed enough detail of the insects for me to recognize them, in a general kind of way. In both cases, the flying insects were ants.

The idea of ants airborne on their own wings — especially in vast numbers — seems to surprise people, and reasonably so. We think of ants as being in or on the ground, or maybe inside a rotting log. We may admire their numbers or their industrious behavior, but there is nothing about routine ant behavior that would make one expect to see them take flight. And yet period swarming flights are a central part of the biology of most ants.

Here’s the deal. Virtually all of the ants you notice — the ones building ant-hills, scuttling across the pavement, or hauling food back to their colony — are females, though they lack a full set of reproductive apparatus. Inside an ant colony, often deep underground, there will be one or more special females (the number varies depending on species). These are queens, larger than their sister workers and basically optimized for laying eggs to populate the colony. You might say that the whole point of being an ant is to protect your queen, bring her food, tend her offspring, and allow her to reproduce.

But nothing lives for ever, and any species needs to have a way to disperse to new locations. Ants address these challenges by means of mass flights. First, seasonal cues prompt the queen (or queens) to begin producing different kinds of eggs, some hatching into winged males (the only time males are produced), others into queens, large-bodied like their mother but not yet quite ready to begin laying their own eggs.

These new queens also start their lives with wings, and in conjunction with the winged males, launch from the colony into a mass courtship flight. Each queen will mate with one or more lucky male (again, different ant species follow their own rules). The males, created to do nothing more than fly briefly and try to mate, die quickly. The now-fertile queens disperse, find a site for a new colony, and produce their own work force of sterile female workers. Voila! The species is perpetuated.

With a specimen queen from Chilmark adequately magnified, I was able to identify the ant species in that swarm as Solenopsis molesta, a tiny, common, and widespread species sometimes called the thief ant. Typical workers are only a couple of millimeters long; the queen, which I photographed, was about four millimeters long. The species is capable of colonizing a wide range of sites, from in the ground to inside the walls of a house. While Solensopsis often scavenges in natural settings, it can also turn up in homes and kitchens as a “grease ant.”

I have no idea what type of ants were involved in the other swarms; they could have been Solenopsis, too, but about 75 species of ant have been found on the Vineyard, with at least a few more surely not yet detected. Like ants most anywhere, ours are abundant and diverse, and mating swarms are a widespread habit among ants.

The sheer ant-power of their highly cooperative colonies makes them major players as scavengers, predators, and prey. But the main importance of ants may be their engineering prowess — the sheer volume of food they can collect and soil they can move.

Ants are agents for dispersing plant seeds; they break down debris and recycle nutrients; they aerate soil; their colonies host a wide range of parasites or partners, ranging from other ant species to beetles and bees. Mating swarms are an especially obvious sign of these humble insects. But even when they’re out of sight and out of mind, ants carry on with their important work.