Great Lakes Dunes
Nature of America Series
Issue Date: October 2, 2008
City: Empire, MI
Vesper sparrows are known for their evening songs. The birds were named after the Roman goddess Venus, the “Evening Star.” Often, male sparrows find a high perch, such as a shrub or fencepost, to declare their ownership of a nesting territory. The sparrow’s song is made up of two to four long, clear notes, followed by a series of slurs and trills.
These birds adapt easily to changes in habitat and are noted for being the first creatures to arrive in reclaimed mine sites and forests. Mother sparrows are very protective of their chicks, often causing diversions to keep them safe. When their chicks or nest are in danger, the mothers will fly away slowly or fake an injury to distract predators and allow their chicks to find safety.
When unthreatened, vesper sparrows commonly travel on the ground, despite being good flyers. If approached cautiously, these small birds won’t fly away, but will rather run along the path. They will normally run ahead of observers, occasionally stopping to look around. When courting, the male sparrows can be seen running along the ground with wings raised and tail spread. They will occasionally take short flights and sing before returning to the ground and running again.
North American red foxes are known for their superior stealth and hunting skills. Red foxes, part of the canid family (the same as dogs and wolves) have remarkable eyesight. Their vison is often compared to that of felines, earning them the nickname of “the cat-like canid.”
These foxes also have exceptional low-frequency hearing. They can easily hear small animals digging underground and will frantically dig through snow and dirt to find their prey. These sly predators use a number of tactics to catch their food. When hunting rabbits, they sneak up close to the small animal and then sprint quickly after it, sometimes reaching speeds up to 45 miles an hour. The fox also has a distinct style when hunting mice. Once the fox hears a mouse, it stands silent and motionless, and then suddenly leaps high into the air, landing on the mouse and pinning it to the ground. Red foxes learn to hunt while still young. When they are just a few weeks old, their parents bring home small, live animals for them to practice hunting and killing.
These foxes can also communicate through facial expressions, scent markings, and sounds. There are 28 recorded red fox vocalizations and some more experienced listeners can even identify their individual voices.
Piping plovers, small, sparrow-sized birds, are recognizable by their sandy color. This coloring benefits as well as hurts these birds. Their coloring is dangerous to them, as humans often step on the birds or drive over them, since they are nearly invisible in the sand.
When hunting for insects and other food they stand still, blending in with the sand before striking. They often use the run-stop-scan technique by leaning toward the ground and pecking at the surface. Their “foot-tremble” method surprises their prey into movement so the plover can attack unexpectedly. These birds normally live, hunt, and migrate in small numbers.
Piping plovers are so named because of their unique call. When standing or flying, the bird’s call is a soft whistle. Their more frequently heard alarm call is a soft “pee-werp,” with the latter half of the call at a lower pitch. When males are attempting to court females, they repeat a high-pitched, sometimes drawn-out song up to 40 or more times per flight. The flights are usually made in the shape of a figure eight. When threatened, plovers are known for their aggressive behavior. Often, plovers bite, peck, or otherwise attack intruders in their territory.
Eastern hog-nosed snakes are recognizable for their pig-like “nose.” They use this snout to dig in the dirt and sand to find toads. Often, when toads are captured by the snakes, they inflate themselves to prevent being eaten. However, eastern hog-nosed snakes have wide mouths, flexible jaws, and curved teeth.
They also have larger teeth in the back of their mouths they use to deflate toads. Additionally, these snakes create a special hormone that allows them to eat toads without even suffering from their toxic secretions. They have special salivary glands that produce a toxic substance to subdue amphibians, but is harmless to humans and other animals.
When threatened, these snakes raise their heads and flatten their necks (similar to cobras). The two large blotches on the back of their necks look like eyes and sometimes scare away predators. They then hiss and lunge at their threat, but never bite. Next, the snakes coil and uncoil their tails and secrete a foul-smelling odor that they writhe around in. If an intruder remains, the snakes convulse, dragging themselves through the dirt, then lying on their backs with their tongues out, playing dead. If turned over, they quickly flip themselves on their backs again.
Common mergansers are the largest of the three merganser species in North America. They have serrated bills that they use to catch slippery fish, which has earned them the nickname of “sawbills.”
These mergansers often float along bodies of water in search of food. Once they spot a fish, the mergansers dive under water, swimming until they catch their prey. Excellent swimmers, these birds will dive into rushing waters and under ice through water that is almost entirely frozen over in search of food. Mergansers are such good hunters that other birds, including gulls and eagles, often wait for them to surface to steal their catch. They usually attempt to swallow their fish whole, causing them to wait for the fish’s head to digest before they can swallow the rest of its body.
If mergansers are disturbed while hunting, they will fly away. Because these birds’ wings are small relative to their body size, they usually skitter along the surface of the water for a brief period before taking flight. Although they may take a while to get in to the air, once they are in flight, common mergansers are exceptionally fast flyers. Male mergansers’ courtship rituals include chasing each other on the water, in the air, and underwater.
Spotted sandpipers have a characteristic walk that intrigues and baffles scientists. When walking, hunting, or nervous, these birds often move with an up-and-down bobbing motion. This has earned these birds the nickname of “teeter-tail.” Chicks adopt this walk nearly as soon as they hatch. Extensive study of spotted sandpipers has yet to explain why they move this way.
Also of great interest to scientists is the sandpiper’s mating habits. The majority of these birds are polyandrous, meaning the females mate with more than one male. The females arrive at the nesting grounds about four days before the males, establishing their territory. As the males arrive, the females compete with each other over territories and males. These fights often include pecking at their opponent’s head and eyes while simultaneously trying to mount their back.
Each female then mates with a male and the pair builds a nest. In most cases, the female then leaves the male to incubate the eggs while she leaves to find and mate with another male. Females mate with up to five males per year, laying no more than four eggs at a time. As the breeding season goes on, the number of available male sandpipers decreases, as they take on nearly all parental responsibilities.
Tiger beetles are some of the fastest-moving creatures on the planet. Their high speeds and hunting techniques earned them their common name. Some of these beetles can travel more than five miles per hour. Relative to their body size, this is an impressive speed. Comparatively, one of the world’s fastest runners can travel at a rate of 5.6 body lengths per second. An average tiger beetle can move at almost 54 body lengths per second, nearly ten times faster than a human sprinter. One of the world’s fastest tiger beetles can travel 125 body lengths per second.
When hunting, adult tiger beetles travel in quick sprints, stopping to look around, then running again. The reason for these stops is the beetles run so fast, they go temporarily blind. As they run at these high speeds, the amount of light their eyes receive is too small to allow them to see their prey, so they must stop momentarily to regain their sight.
The beetle’s larvae gathers food in a different way. These young grubs live in deep burrows in the ground. When they hear prey overhead, they flip backwards out of their holes, grabbing it with their powerful jaws and anchoring themselves to the ground with strong hooks. Then they bring their catch back to the burrow to eat.
White-footed mice are nocturnal rodents, doing most of their hunting at night. They do not hibernate during the winter, but will remain in their homes for a few days if temperatures are too cold or food is sparse.
These mice require large amounts of food for their size to keep their metabolism up, and often gather more food than they need. They store it in trees and underground near their nests. Pouches in their mouths help them carry this food home. Their scientific name (Peromyscus) comes from the Greek words pera and myskos, meaning “pouched little mouse.”
They travel alone or in small groups and are protective of their territories. They are excellent swimmers and climbers and have great eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell. Their long tails help them balance, especially when climbing. One common habit of these mice that scientists have yet to explain is a tendency to drum their paws on hollow reeds or dry leaves. The resulting sound is a long, musical buzzing. Unlike the common house mouse, their voice resembles a song more than a squeak. White-footed mice are the most populous forest-dwelling small rodents in the eastern United States.
On January 10, 1986, the Great Lakes piping plovers were added to the list of endangered animals under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. At that time there were just 17 pairs, compared to hundreds in previous years.
Since their addition to the endangered species list, steps have been taken to ensure the piping plover’s survival. All piping plover nests are monitored during the breeding season. Often, the areas where they are located are off-limits to people. Michigan has created a Piping Plover Patrol to instruct people at beaches and parks to stay away from the plovers’ nests. Since 1986, the piping plover population in Michigan has varied between 12 and 25 breeding pairs.
The piping plover eggs and young nestlings are a light sandy color. This coloring both protects the birds from potential predators and leads to their accidental death by humans who do not see them. When threatened, the young chicks stand still, blending in with the sand. Their parents chase away and peck at intruders. In many cases, they will fake a broken wing to distract them from the nest. Although the parents go to great lengths to protect their young, they do not feed them. The chicks hop out of the nest and search for food for themselves.
Red admirals are fast-moving butterflies that eat tree sap, fermented fruit, and some kinds of nectar. Their consumption of fermented fruit can often leave them inebriated, making flight challenging. These butteflies are attracted to perspiration and will repeatedly try to land on a sweating human. Red admirals are named after the badges on naval uniforms.
Male red admirals are very territorial creatures. When searching for a mate, they normally claim an elliptical territory ranging between 13 to 42 feet wide by 26 to 78 feet long. To protect their territory, the male patrols the perimeter up to 30 times an hour. The male admiral attempts to drive intruders away by out-flying and out-maneuvering them, which appears to outsiders as if they are simply playing or dancing.
When females are preparing to lay their eggs they use their front legs, which have brush-like scales, to “taste” leaves. If the leaves are good, she lays one egg on each leaf. The young caterpillars eat the folded leaf where they live. When in flight, most red admirals display swift, fidgety moments, regularly changing direction. They are most active during spring and fall and usually hibernate during the winter.