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Word of the Week: Lek

Today’s word is:

lek

Pronounced: …lek. This one sounds like it looks!

Sciency Definition: A lek is a communal assembly area where members of certain species meet to carry on courtship behavior and impress the local ladies.

I could have said: Prairie Chicken party place! Musk Duck disco dance-off! Hermit Hummingbird ho-down! Capercaillie ass-kicking camp! (I could go on.)

What’s it do?  A lek is a place of great testosteronal activity: males of species including ground-dwelling birds like Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix) and Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) gather in one designated spot, performing mating displays and challenging each other. “Lek” is a word of Swedish origin, coming from the word leka which means “to play.” “Lekking” is the act of performing at a lek, which may also be called a “strutting ground.” Superior males get prime real estate in the lek, with lesser contenders lingering further towards the outskirts. Females visit to survey the selection and choose a mate. Pretty neat, huh?

Example sentence: I don’t have an example sentence today; all I can think about is a group of human males getting together in a big field to flap their arms and stomp their feet and make noise, while mildly-amused women stand off to the side, muttering to each other. I need some coffee.

You can check out an outstanding video here of Sharp Tailed Grouse lekking it up! It very well may be the coolest thing you see all week.

Diagram of Sage Grouse Lekking Grounds Via Sadi Carnot on Wiki

 

More for the super-nerds

 Just wanted to share this snippet of an article talking about male courtship behavior in animals like peacocks, cardinals, or any other species whose males aren’t exactly camoflauged:

Zahavi declared that male sexual characteristics only convey useful information to the females if these traits confer a handicap on the male.[12]Otherwise, males could simply cheat: if the courtship displays have a neutral effect on survival, males could all perform equally and it would signify nothing to the females. But if the courtship display is somehow deleterious to the male’s survival—such as increased predator risk or time and energy expenditure—it becomes a test by which females can assess male quality. Under the “handicap principle,” males who excel at the courtship displays prove that they are of better quality and genotype, as they have already withstood the costs to having these traits.”

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Signs of Spring

When I lived next to the Chesapeake Bay, there came a point in April where there was no going back; there may be chilly days and plenty of rain, but you could rest assured knowing that snow was another seven months away and your gardens wouldn’t succumb to a freezing night.

Where I live now, there’s no such thing as a line between winter and spring. Yesterday we had nearly two inches of snow on the ground in the morning. It melted off by the afternoon, but the day was still cold unless you had the chance to stand in direct sun during a brief moment when the wind wasn’t blowing.

If any of you follow me on Twitter, you’ve read my griping all winter about how I ache for heat and sunshine. Even though we can get snow at any time of year, what quickens my little naturalist heart is the fact that despite the cold temperatures, the world here is still rousing itself for the shifting of the seasons.

Today, I just felt like listing a few of those signs, because if I – and you – stop for just a moment to watch, listen, and feel, your whole day can change. We’re so used to ignoring our natural rhythms that we forget to be a part of the wild, so even just ten seconds a day can reconnect you and ground you.

Inside the Nature Center…

…the Pacific Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris regilla) spend a portion of the day croaking. There are three males in the tank and one female (poor girl looks tired), but only one usually does the croaking. They’re so incredibly loud you wouldn’t believe such a noise could come out of such a tiny body! They’re also moving around the tank whereas they didn’t do a lot of moving during the winter, just staying hunkered down instead.

Image with permission by Mike Bernard from mister-toad.com – please, please, PLEASE check out this amazing site, especially the page of Chorus Frog info (click the image to get there). There are amazing photos of frogs (my two favorites include a misguided frog trying to mate with a newt and a frog being eaten by a giant water bug!) and sound clips of the frogs to listen to. Phenomenal site!

…the Western Skink (Eumeces skiltonianus) has come out of hiding; he stays buried beneath the substrate for most of the winter and doesn’t eat any of the crickets offered to him. He’s now basking his little black and blue body, flicking his tongue out to taste the air, and chases down crickets like a mad thing before devouring them.

…the Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer) suddenly has an appetite again. This animal can go nine months without eating, despite the heat and light we keep in the tank year-long. It’s a beautiful testament that all of the reptiles and amphibians here have a natural, ingrained cycle that all the false environment in the world can’t take away. Which tells me that we do, too, no matter how hard we try to ignore it.

…the Long-Toed Salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum) have risen to the surface of the tank. This may not sound like much, but I never get to see them throughout the winter, as they’re always buried in the soil. This time of year, however, when I lift their water dishes to change out the water, they’re right there beneath them, and they eat voraciously too.

                          Long-Toed Salamander with its aposematic coloration.                                    Image via Wiki, by Thompsma.

Outside the Nature Center…

…the Chickarees (also known as Douglas or Pine Squirrels, Tamiasciurus douglasii) are in a state of complete hyperactivity. One in particular has claimed our Nature Center as his very own. Not only does he chase Gray Squirrels three times his size away from the bird feeders, he manages to get inside some of our outdoor buildings and pilfers items. He’s known for stealing insulation, paper towels, and once I even watched from a window as he attempted to stuff his face full of mop-head fibers – still connected to the mop – and make off with the whole thing. It proved too large for him to handle, so he quit, but sliced fibers were found in his nest (the place where all of the stolen items end up). If our head of maintenance makes the mistake of leaving his lunchbox open in the shop, the squirrel also makes off with baggies of peanuts and Doritos. This squirrel is so tenacious that he squeezes inside of our squirrel-proof bird feeders (ha) to eat the delicious sunflower seed, already hulled for his convenience. He and I had a battle last year where I’d run outside when he was in there to yell like a maniac or squirt him with water. He was utterly undaunted and if he bothered running off, he came back mere moments later. I eventually gave up, and he’s now earned my undying respect and admiration. Visitors often ask if he’s “supposed to be in there?” when they see him in the bird feeder. My answer is, without a doubt, yes.

                  Chickaree, photo by Karen Dingerson at Critterzone.                        Naughty embodied in a squirrel suit.

…the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) – which are not called Canadian Geese – make an unholy ruckus every day. The chase each other, battle it out on water and land, and even spar on our rooftops, scaring the bejesus out of our administrative ladies as they think someone’s trying to break into the building. They stand up there and honk at each other or at us. Ah, mating season.

…this morning as I walked down the path to the Nature Center building, a little Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli) landed on the entrance of a nesting box that I’ve never seen anything use, with a huge hunk of moss in its beak. It eyed me for a moment before disappearing inside, and I hope hope hope HOPE she makes a little family this year!

…the swallows are back! I’m not going to list any scientific names because, truth be told, I have no idea what kind of swallows they are, but they’re out there darting over the water after insects. They’re absolutely amazing in that there could be a dozen of them in one small area, and they swoop and maneuver around each other without colliding.

…the coyotes (Canis latrans) are back in action. They’ve been spotted a number of times close by the Nature Center in the early mornings, and we hear them yipping to each other as they hunt. Visitors are reporting them as well, and there’s something just really magical about wild dog cousins out roaming around, looking for voles and emerging squirrels.

Image via Wiki, by marya (emdot).

…the Belding’s Ground Squirrels (Urocitellus beldingi) have come out of hibernation and have returned to a system of tunnels behind our administrative building, hopefully to raise another family. Last year we were privileged enough to watch through a window as baby squirrels emerged from the sandy tunnels to practice climbing and playing and to sun themselves in the summer heat. Talk about cute-overload. They fell down a lot.

GOO. Baby Belding’s. Image via Wiki, by Alan Vernon.

So far, the hummingbirds and the otters haven’t shown up yet but as you can imagine, I eagerly await their arrivals. I listen each day for the distinctive buzzing of hummingbird wings so I can get the feeders out, and keep an eye on the lake for the sinewy, graceful lines of swimming mustelids.

In the plant world, the manzanita (Arctostaphylos) has beautiful hot-pink flowers hanging from beneath its leaves already, and the tiniest tips of fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) are poking out of the ground where I planted one last year. Soon the Ponderosas will start smelling sweet!

            Image via Wiki, by kallerna.               Beaaaauuutiful fireweed in full bloom.

I am so, so fortunate to experience all of these things each day, and I want you to know that you can experience them too. This world is just outside your door, even if it’s only in the microcosm of the cracks in the sidewalk where dandelions and ants are the predominant species.

What are the signs of spring where you are? I would love you to leave a comment sharing the things you’re noticing about the changing of plants and animals as the seasons shift in your part of the world. Thanks for reading!

[Bird Video Series] #5: Bower Birds Love Blue

Bower Birds Love Blue concludes our week of bird videos! As a visual person, I find it nice sometimes to take a break from reading and processing, and just watch the behaviors in their natural settings. I hope you’ve enjoyed these clips too.

Bower Birds are known for several things: 1) amassing a lot of stuff with which to impress their potential mates, 2) erecting impressive structures out of sticks (complete with support beams) and 3) stealing blue things from humans.

This is a group of species that go to an enormous amount of trouble to attract and please a mate: with Bower Birds, it’s not just about having good-looking feathers. Some species build piles of beetle wings that iridesce in the light, while others thatch entry ways in which they hope to mate. Today you get two videos, and I won’t apologize for featuring David again. I just won’t.

[Bird Video Series] #3: Birds of Paradise

If you still haven’t seen the Planet Earth series, let me give you a sneak peek here. David Attenborough narrates this incredible clip of several different Birds of Paradise. Each has its own elaborate, colorful, sometimes mesmerizing mating display. These birds are no larger than your average chicken but their displays truly rival that of the Peacock. I remember the first time I saw this, I was so blown away I had to rewind it and watch it again, just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Enjoy!

[Bird Video Series] #2: The Amazing Lyre Bird Mimic

I love David Attenborough. I will watch anything he makes, anytime, anywhere. If there is a Heaven, his documentaries play on repeat all day long. And I’m not picky – I’ll settle for things he only narrates too.

Now that that’s out of the way and you all know my secret love obsession with Sir Attenborough, on to the video. This clip is from Life of Birds, which, if you are unaware, is an amazing documentary on – you guessed it! – birds. There’s also Life of Mammals (obviously about mammals), Life in the Undergrowth (about invertebrates), and Life in Cold Blood (reptiles and amphibians). These documentaries are essentially the Planet Earths of the animal kingdom and they’re without a doubt some of the best nature documentaries ever made. Check them out, you’ll be happy you did!

This clip features a tropical bird called the Lyre Bird, which is a bird that mimics to impress mates. You won’t believe your ears when you hear what this bird can imitate…

And, now that you’ve enjoyed something educational, I’m leaving you with this one as well. At first I was highly offended by the hacking of an Attenborough clip, but, well, then I was laughing so hard I almost choked on my Poptart.

[Bird Video Series] #1: Dance of the Sharp Tailed Grouse

Sharp-Tailed grouse via Teo on Wiki.

I knew nothing of the Sharp-Tailed Grouse before catching a TV show featuring the reintroduction of a Western population and immediately wanted to share with you the amazing dance that this bird puts on during the mating season. In fact, I’m so excited about little-known bird behavior right now, I think this week will be a series of fun bird videos – check back for all five!

Sharp-Taileds are in trouble due to habitat loss and this little clip from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources does an excellent job of showing the mating dance. Other videos have poorer sound and I really wanted you to hear the sound of the foot-stomping that they do. I’ve never seen anything like it; it’s so fast you don’t even realize that the grouse are making it! Enjoy.