Earth Almanac

One tough little warbler; ten-inch terrors; a ticklish beetle; the march of avocets; sky-high sheep; and more. 

Tough but Sweet

Our smallest eastern warbler, the northern parula, is wafting up from the tropics in one of the longest-lasting of all avian migrations. It’s not unusual for birds bound for the northern part of the range to pass fledged broods in the south. Breeding occurs in moist woodlands from Manitoba to the Maritimes and south to the Gulf states and Florida. A largely unoccupied gap along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to New Hampshire seems to be filling in. Basketlike nests are built, mostly by the female, in and partly from Spanish moss in the South and old man’s beard lichen or lace lichen in the North. Bowls may be lined with hair, fine grasses, pine needles, or plant down. What northern parulas lack in size they make up for in attitude. Busy and combative, they engage in tight, aerial dogfights complete with machine-gun–like chipping. And even when not gleaning insects and spiders from the high canopy, they’ll vigorously wipe their bills on branches. You’re more likely to hear than see parulas, so listen for their clear, sweet chip calls or the male’s song—a high-pitched, drawly buzz.

Ten-Inch Terrors

Remember Hollywood’s velociraptors—how, on their hind legs with tail and forelimbs raised, they stalked and ran down their terrified prey? Well, they’re out there now on our western deserts—smaller versions, that is. Collared lizards, named for the two black bands around their neck and shoulders, will rend human flesh with powerful jaws (but only if you pick them up without gloves). They much prefer to chomp down on grasshoppers; spiders; other lizards, including individuals of their own species; and, occasionally, plant material. Their bipedal sprinting, which has been clocked at 15 mph, may be in pursuit of prey, but more often it’s a means of escaping such natural enemies as hawks and roadrunners. An adult may be 10 inches long, but more than half that length is tail that will easily detach should a predator manage to seize it. In May and June a courting male will rapidly bob his head, drag his belly and hips around a female, bite her neck, then climb onto her. If she’s not in the mood, she’ll push him off by arching her back. Otherwise, she’ll soon lay and bury as many as 10 round, leathery eggs. They’ll hatch in 45 to 65 days, depending on the weather. 

Tickle Me, Beetle

On a warm June night, an eyed elater—a creature that looks as frightening as its name sounds—is on your well-lighted porch, trying to enter your house. Abundant in the East and as far west as Texas and South Dakota, this is one of our largest click beetles, approaching two inches in length. It derives its name from the two black, white-rimmed “snake-eye” spots on the upper part of its thorax, apparently an adaptation to frighten predators. So what should you do: retreat to the cellar, fetch a broom, or rise and tickle the intruder? Take the last course of action because it will elicit a fascinating show. First your eyed elater is apt to play dead. Persist in your tickling and it will emit a loud click, springing as high as six inches into the air. The response will startle you, even if you’re expecting it, so you can imagine how it would affect, say, a foraging skunk. There’s another good reason to welcome eyed elaters. Their larvae, “wireworms,” don’t damage crops like the wireworms of many other click-beetle species; instead they prey on such insect pests as wood borers and flies. 

As Pure as Snow

In Oregon, Nevada, California, and Baja California strange and beautiful flowers called snow plants are pushing up through wet humus and dead pine and fir needles. As the Yosemite Wildflower Guide notes, they are precisely the color of snow “over which a bear has just vivisected an unwary tourist.” The snow plant derives its name from the notion that it rises through snow—something that rarely happens, although patches of snow may persist nearby. In 1912 John Muir offered one of the best descriptions yet: “It is red, fleshy and watery and looks like a gigantic asparagus shoot.” Since the plant has no fragrance its bright color may be an adaptation to attract pollinating insects. Like fungi, the snow plant lacks chlorophyll, but unlike fungi, it has a vascular system and produces flowers and seed-bearing capsules. Early botanists assumed it was a tree root parasite, but it draws water and nutrients from a fungus that is symbiotic with the roots.  

5 |On the March

American avocets, among our most elegantly attired shorebirds, are moving from their winter habitat along the southern Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Mexico and the United States to breeding grounds that stretch from Washington east to Minnesota and south to California and Texas. Look for them in and around prairie sloughs and alkaline ponds. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a phalanx advancing abreast across the shallows, methodically swinging their long, upcurved bills as they glean aquatic insects, crustaceans, small fish, and floating seeds. Watch also for the male’s courtship display. He’ll preen and splash with increasing frenzy until he mounts the female. After copulation, the partners intertwine their necks and run. Either one may scrape out the nest depression while the other watches intently. And both will incubate one to four eggs, which they’ll defend from predators by stretching out their wings and walking toward them in a teetering gait. Eggs hatch in 22 to 24 days, and within an hour or two the chicks are able to leave the nest and feed on their own.

6 Sky-High Sheep

In the remote high country of the Pacific Northwest to Texas and Mexico and as far east as Nebraska, bighorn sheep are moving up into summer range. Rough, rubberlike pads on cloven hooves allow them to traverse trails that would challenge human climbers secured by rope and piton. Within a few days each pregnant ewe will slip away from the herd to find a sheltered ledge where she’ll deliver a lamb with soft, light-colored hair. After about a week, lambs follow their mothers, frolicking with other newborns and learning to supplement milk diets with tender grasses. Both sexes grow horns, though the ewe’s will be thinner and won’t attain a full curl. Bighorns of the Rocky Mountain race are the largest wild sheep in North America, occasionally reaching 300 pounds. By the early 20th century, bighorns had almost been eliminated, mostly by pathogens and parasites contracted from domestic sheep. But a reduction in sheep ranching, strict hunting regulations, and extensive reintroductions (like the one pictured here, in Utah) funded by sportsmen have restored the species to a large part of its natural range.