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Earth Almanac

Bobbleheads
Ghostly Goatsucker
Walk On By
Fingers or Antlers
Summer Flashback
Landgulls

Bobbleheads
In the waning days of autumn, harbor seals ease south from their breeding grounds in the North Pacific and North Atlantic to haul-out sites in warmer latitudes like the Channel Islands and Cape Ann on the East Coast. Look for their doglike faces bobbing in the waves and watch them as they push onto sand or rocks with webbed flippers. On reaching a dry perch they’ll assume the banana position, raising their heads and back flippers to take full advantage of the warm air. Don’t approach too closely because they recognize how vulnerable they now are and will scuttle back into the sea if they feel the least bit threatened. Their demeanor changes radically in the water, where they can propel themselves at up to 12 mph, moving as easily upside down as right-side up. Swimming seals will often approach your boat, looking at you with deep black eyes and the same curiosity with which you watch them on land. Pollution and hunting had seriously depleted harbor seal populations, but the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 has allowed North American populations to recover to natural abundance.

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Ghostly Goatsucker
The well-known common nighthawk has mostly departed for nations nearer the equator. But in our Southwest there’s another nighthawk that may linger into early winter, haunting open, arid country. Like its better-studied cousin, the common nighthawk, this species has a cavernous mouth, useful for bluffing predators and adapted for catching flying insects rather than emptying goat udders, as farmers used to claim but probably never believed. If they get caught in a prolonged cold snap, lesser nighthawks enter a state of torpidity that makes them appear dead on their roosts, which are usually on the ground. As the day warms they’ll rev up, but most of their hunting will be done at dawn, dusk, and in bright moonlight. Save for their behavior and voice, they resemble common nighthawks, seen through much of North America. But lesser nighthawks are quieter and not so flamboyant, floating low over the desert, silent as the moths they prey on. Their vocalization is nothing like the sharp, woodcock-like peent of common nighthawks, heard in flight. Rather it’s a low, toadlike trill, usually uttered on the ground, or a louder whinny during airborne courtship. 

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Walk On By
“Say, who is this walking man?” sings James Taylor. You know—the mysterious apparition who moves “in silent desperation,” popping in and out of the woods when “the leaves have come to turning and the goose has gone to fly.” For those with an eye and mind for such things, he might be a fern, the one now greening frost-browned woodlands throughout most of eastern Canada and the United States. The walking fern “walks” by sending out new roots when the tips of its long, evergreen leaves touch moist, limestone-buffered earth. But it can reproduce sexually as well. Like most ferns, the walking fern emits spores that germinate into tiny sperm- and egg-producing plants. Early botanists kept long vigils, waiting for ferns to flower and go to seed. When this never happened they concluded that fern seeds were invisible. It therefore followed logically that anyone who carried fern seeds would become invisible. Scheming to rob a rich merchant, Gadshill proclaims in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “We have the receipt of fern-seed, we walk invisible.”

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Fingers or Antlers
Depending on your personality you may perceive them as blackened, white-tipped fingers of the interred dead protruding from the earth in a last, desperate clutch at a lost world of light and air . . . or just freshly shed deer antlers. Throughout most of North America and the world, candlesnuff (a.k.a., staghorn) fungus fruits throughout the year on moldering deciduous wood. But late fall is the best time to look for it. Though neither palatable nor dangerous, candlesnuff is a member of the sac-fungus phylum, which includes such prized species as morels, truffles, and baker’s yeast as well as dangerous ones like plant and animal pathogens. Sac fungi have cases from which they forcibly eject clouds of spores when disturbed. While puffballs and earthstars also produce these clouds, they require an external force—such as a child’s foot. Spores released by the candlesnuff’s pimply black parts are the result of sexual reproduction, but this fungus can also reproduce asexually via different, lighter-colored spores.

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Summer Flashback
On a still, hushed afternoon between fall and winter, there’s enough residual warmth to melt the hoarfrost on meadows and the skim ice on ponds, marshes, and slow-moving streams. Suddenly the essence of high summer, a dragonfly, darts through a cloud of winter crane flies, hovers, then alights on your collar. It’s an autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), the last of its order you’re likely to encounter this year in most of the East and on the West Coast. Sympetrum is Latin for “with rock,” a reference to the insect’s habit of basking on sun-warmed rocks. This species is a member of the common skimmer family and, as with its cousins, its body is shorter than its wingspan. The female has a small keel-like structure protruding downward from the tip of her tail. Her thorax is brown, her abdomen red. Males have red abdomens. Eggs, dropped on the water earlier in the season, now contain fully formed embryos that will emerge as predacious nymphs in spring. Concealed in bottom detritus, the nymphs will wait in ambush for their mostly invertebrate prey. This adaptation generally protects them from predators. But when attacked by a striped crayfish snake they’ll bite it viciously, sometimes causing it to bleed.

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Landgulls
Those raucous hordes of “seagulls”—glutting themselves on fast-food leavings, landfill refuse, flying and earthbound insects, fish, grain, worms, and reptile and rodent parts Cuisinarted by farm machinery—were once pushed to near extinction by the millinery trade. For some that knowledge may increase scant appreciation of ring-billed gulls, now pouring south from the Northwest, the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, and the Northeast. More “landgulls” than seagulls and named for the black ring around their bills, they closely resemble slightly larger herring gulls and California gulls in both appearance and behavior. In some areas, particularly the deep South, ring-bills are the most abundant of all gulls. This species, once threatened by human whim and currently benefiting from human living habits, nests in large colonies that drive out other species. For example, in some years a single island in Lake Ontario hosts as many as 85,000 pairs. The ongoing explosion of ring-billed gulls may be the reason they are increasingly being seen in Europe.

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