Death Becomes

During our recent stay in the USA, a cardinal had an unlucky fatal collision with the patio doors at the back of the house. The unfortunate bird was either a female or a juvenile male, from its mixture of buff-brown and orange-red plumage. Adult male cardinals are, of course, a bright scarlet. Gingerly, I extended its wing. Two primary feathers on each were only about half grown, and since cardinals don’t lose and regrow their flight feathers during their first summer I could see this was an adult female.

By coincidence I was partway through reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting, a lovely little meditation on the process and meaning of death in the animal world. In it he describes a series of experiments conducted at his cabin in the Maine woods, in which he left out carcasses in order to study the behavior of Nicrophorus beetles, known as sexton or burying beetles. What more fitting burial could I arrange for the recently expired cardinal than one conducted by beetles? I took her down to the edge of the woods and retreated, hoping the insect undertakers would soon arrive.

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Ebb and Flow

Summer in Maryland was apparently a temperate, rainy affair this year. On our recent trip we saw the evidence of this everywhere we went. The Great American Lawn was resplendently lush and green, weedy vegetation was rampant, wildflowers were plentiful. A wetter than average summer in Britain can be bad news for insects since the average summer is wet enough to begin with.

In the often very hot and very sticky mid-Atlantic USA, rain is clearly a boon, keeping vegetation from drying out – which ensures a good supply of food for insect herbivores (and by extension their predators) right through the season. Insects were abundant this September, predominately big ones like the cicadas and crickets mentioned in my last post, and a superb variety of large hymenopterans which I admired but have not begun to identify, if you’ll excuse the uncaptioned photographs. The strikingly handsome Goldenrod soldier beetle seemed to be in the peak of its mating season.  Add in warm and humid conditions that prevailed throughout most of our stay and it felt a lot like high summer still held sway.

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Learning bird song is straightforward enough: go outside, listen to birds. Then watch birds. Start to put the senses together. Which bird says what? That sweet, happy-yet-wistful song any time of year is a robin, that harsh screech a jay, the strident chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff in March is – guess what – and the gentle hueets moving through a low tree canopy six months later are contact calls from the same species. Birds are only a part of nature’s soundscape, though. They’re often the dominant one, but it depends on where in the world and when in the day or year you happen to be listening.

At night, it’s often other creatures that rule the acoustic roost, inhabiting a secret world of sound that can be a little trickier to unlock. That might be because it’s a sound world predominately outside of human hearing range, as for super-squeaky bats. Fortunately, access to their secrets can be bought with a little help from a bat box, which I and the other Reading staff and students on the recent Devon field course very much enjoyed playing with. We started one evening by lying in wait for a roost of lesser horseshoe bats, which use very high frequency sonar they amplify through strange, leaf-like appendages on their nose. The sound is fantastical, an almost machine-like wavering whistle that is markedly alien. Making more conventional rapid clicking sounds were diminutive pipistrelle bats, accompanied by near identical soprano pipistrelles – a separate species mostly told by its higher frequency calls.

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