Tick—ed Off: a tick—lish situation

On January 11th as I woke I found myself picking at something on the inside of my arm, just below my wrist.  It was tiny—almost like a scab.  Jan took off her glasses and peered at it.  “I think it’s a tick!”  No, that’s not possible.  So I checked it with my hand lens.  It was a tick–a deer tick!

My female Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis) (c) Bill Beatty

Some may wonder why would I be excited enough to write about a tick.  Considering that my career has been 100% nature-related – 18 years as a full-time naturalist at Oglebay Institute’s Brooks Nature Center and then 17 years freelancing as a nature photographer/teacher–one would think I would be familiar with ticks.  Well, I’ve seen them, identified them, photographed them and even extracted them, but this is the first tick I have ever had embedded in ME.  I can remember just two others on the surface of my skin and several more on a pants leg.  No one I know has spent more time than I have lying in grassy meadows (sometimes for hours) or hiking through grassy areas.  My routine during warm weather months used to be that I was outside before sunrise and did not return home until about 3 PM.  If I didn’t shoot at least 3 rolls of film in those 8 hours I felt like I hadn’t done anything.  Upon arriving home I changed clothes, cut up half a watermelon, found a book, and lay in the hammock to read and rehydrate myself.  I never checked for ticks.  Years before I had learned that ticks apparently didn’t like me and I was happy about that considering all the time I spent outside in tick territory.

When my son was young I would take him fishing at a nearby lake.  Much of the time we hiked the shoreline casting here and there or we sat in one location waiting for a fish to pull on the line.  Some of our time was always spent picking ticks from his pants legs–at times there were many.  I never had any, ever.  So I never felt the need to check for them on me.  A friend once suggested that, since I shave my head, ticks would climb to the top of my head and, finding nowhere to hide, they would jump off to the ground.  Interesting theory, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case.  Most likely it’s a body chemistry thing considering that I never use repellents.

So, here I was, in bed, with a deer tick feeding on my body fluids and hoping to remain there long enough to engorge herself and nourish her eggs.

My female Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis) feeding on my body fluids. (c) Bill Beatty

 Considering the stories about the ravages of Lyme disease, the first thing most people would want to do is to get that dreaded thing out as quickly and carefully as possible.  But MY first thought was, “I need photos of this!”  It took some time to change from my standard 28-85mm lens to my 50mm with all the extension tubes and a ring-flash.  Finally it was time for the photos.  I sat on the floor and held the camera with my left hand.  Since this was an extreme close-up, “in” or “out” of focus was just a matter of about 1-2 mm but I was able to focus by resting the camera against my right arm and leaning slightly nearer to  or away from the tick.  Jan pulled on the skin of my arm to get more of a side view of the creature.  But, wait a minute–not so fast.  Because the tick was embedded near my right wrist I had no way to push the shutter button on the right side of the camera.   It’s nice to have a willing helper.  In a whisper, so I wouldn’t move and lose focus, I said, “Okay.”  Jan reached around and carefully pressed the shutter release button.  I checked the photo and set it up again and again.  Someone coming into the room would have thought we were engaged in that old game “Twister”.  Actually “twister” was even more true later.

We took lots of photos–some are seen here to illustrate this story.  When we had taken a number of really good ones, we also decided to get some shots of our “Tick-twister” holding the tick.  Jan had decided to get some of these for us earlier this fall after reading about them.  These tick extractors come in a pack of two tiny plastic crowbar-looking tools.

This was the first time we ever had the opportunity to use our Tick-twisters.  Jan and I were amazed at how fast and efficient this tiny crowbar was.  Once hooked around the tick’s body, it did not fall off, even during numerous photos.

Tick twisters…two sizes…the Deer Ticks take the smaller size (c) Bill Beatty

When the photos were done, a couple of twists and the tick came out easily, head and all.  (Jan says to beware of cheap imitations—she bought the exact one described in the article last fall.)

Hook and twist (c) Bill Beatty

The general consensus is that a tick has to embed for at least 24 hours before there is a danger of Lyme disease.  I hope that’s true since I know the tick wasn’t there when I went to bed the night before.  Fortunately this tick looked to be in the “unfed” stage based on medical charts like the one pictured in the post.  And, yes, we both checked ourselves carefully for other unwanted attachments.

(c) University of Rhode Island…TickEncounter Resource Center

Not only was this tick surprising since it was my first ever, it was especially unexpected since it is early January and, even though we have had some milder temperatures than a typical winter, there have been some cold days far below freezing.  One would think that ticks wouldn’t be out and active at a time like this.  So now we know that anyone chasing birds, taking photos or hiking this time of year still has to check carefully when they come back inside and even remember to check the next day.  Even someone who has been tick-resistant.  That’s the tick—et!

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Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here….Pine Siskins………by Jan Runyan

Raft of Ducks

Band of Jays

Vein, Treasury or Charm of Goldfinches (truly)

Exaltation of Larks

Murmuration of Starlings

Parliament of Owls (political commentary?)

Congress of Ravens (more political commentary?)

Siege of Herons

Ballet of Swans

Banditry of Chickadees

Herd of Wrens (really?)

Descent of Woodpeckers

Slurp of Sapsuckers

Asylum of Loons (yes, really)

Many kinds of birds have a special word to designate their flock, often a word that is appropriate in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. But for the species of bird Bill and I almost always see in flocks, there appears to be no group name. That’s a shame because on our property Pine Siskins are the ultimate flocking birds. There is never just one. If we think we only see one it’s just because we haven’t checked the bushes or trees nearby.

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (c) Bill Beatty

Siskins have been especially prevalent this late fall and early winter. We hear their rising “eeeeeeep” and chatters in the tops of the spruces along the driveway. We see the flock occupying every small perch in the top of the Black Locust. We futilely try to count the number of tiny black dots as they zip across the open sky. The count sometimes reaches two or three dozen before they are out of sight.

Pine Siskin’s yellow wing patch (c) Bill Beatty

Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

But we see the flocking compulsion most when we have the bird banding nets open. Just as they do everything else, Pine Siskins feed together. At times they almost cover our sunflower feeders. And they don’t seem to be net wary at all. So as the flock flies in to feed, many bounce off the nets and a few get caught. After a few moments in a tree or bush, the rest of the flock returns.

Pine Siskin in net (c) Bill Beatty

Some of the birds eat, but others just perch near their netted brothers and sisters. “I’m here for you,” the free birds seem to say. Some balance on the top string of the net. Others alight on the strings which run the length of the net forming the pockets. A few even grab hold of the netting near a captured friend and just hang there. Sometimes the net sitters will fly over to feed and then return again to sit watch near their buddies.

As the free Pine Siskins remain near the flock members who can’t fly away, it is inevitable that little by little more of the birds hit the net and fall into the pockets. So we also rarely band just one siskin. Sometimes the nets have more than a dozen at one time.

Pine Siskins in mist net (c) Bill Beatty

If you are a Pine Siskin, it’s a group thing. Fly together, perch together, eat together, watch over each other, get banded together! Like the three Musketeers, it’s one for all and all for one!

So for loyalty above and beyond just the usual hanging out near each other, I think Pine Siskins deserve to have a special name for their flocks. I have searched the thesaurus extensively to find the word that truly conveys the level of closeness and concern evidenced by these birds. A word that goes beyond “acquaintance”, “familiarity” or “relationship”.  I would like to make two suggestions for consideration by those who are fascinated with birds and who would like to see Pine Siskins get their own appropriate group name:

a Friendship of Pine Siskins                             an Alliance of Pine Siskins

What do you think?