Saturday, April 18, 2015

Little Pollinators

Fuzzy Butt strikes again
A wide variety of tiny flying insects were swarming the newly opened blossoms on our wild plum trees (Prunus americana) along the lane.  I set up to photograph them, focusing on one branch or another and firing wildly as they settled for a second or less before sampling another blossom.  I shot 150 pictures just to capture a few good pictures.  I could relate to the infinite number of monkeys at their infinite number of typewriters (word processors?) trying to reproduce the works of Shakespeare.

Proboscis deep in a blossom
One particular insect species was all over the trees, plunging head first into the blossoms.  All I could see was its brown rear sticking up and I named it "Fuzzy Butt" for lack of a better identification.  A few pictures showed a slender proboscis drilling deep into the nectar pool.  After two days of photographing it, one of the FB's decided to land on the gravel driveway and I was able to capture it.

Bee Fly- Bombylius major
FB turns out to be a BF, a bee fly, Bombylius majorThese are bee mimics, looking and flying like them.  The proboscis is impressive, looking lethal but actually harmless.  Notice in the flower pictures that the wings don't show up.  The fly feeds with its wings flapping continuously as it clings to the flower with its legs.

The bee fly has another bee connection.  The female will fly close to a digging bee burrow and flick her eggs into the hole.  When her young emerge they will feed on both the stored food and the bee larvae.  She may also lay eggs on flowers which draw host insects.  Her larvae then can attach to a visiting bee or wasp and get a free ride to their home.

There were at least 5 other species visiting the flowers although they were rapid and impossible to identify.  Plum blossoms are small, but much larger than most of the flowers this time of year.  Their nectar is deep inside the blossom so bee flies are especially well equipped to reach it.

Unknown fly
Several other insects much smaller that the individual petals plunged deeply into the heart of the blossom, tiny unidentifiable black dots which remain anonymous.  A few flies of different species fought their way into the nectar pool.  There are only a few butterflies that come to nectar at this time of year and so the plum remains dependent on its diverse insect friends.

When we think of pollinators at all, we tend to focus on bees and butterflies, but there is a lot more fertilization action going on in those blossoms.  There is a huge list of plum pollinators listed at  As Paul McCartney would have said if asked, "they get by with a little help of their (little) friends."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Orangetip of Spring Part 2

Female falcate orangetip lay an egg on a mustard
We posted on the family life of the falcate orangetip butterfly two days ago.  Today I had the opportunity to see a female falcate orangetip landing on some tiny mustard family plants in the field at Bull Creek.   She seemed to be very determined in her efforts, bending down the tip of her abdomen to touch the plant.

After getting a few suboptimal pictures, I pulled one of the mustards and found her tiny golden egg on the stalk.  It is a beautiful shiny golden-orange to the naked eye.  With magnification you can see it is fluted along its length.

After she had laid several more eggs, a male came by and tried to hit on her.  She must have given him a signal that she was already full as he immediately took off in pursuit of a more receptive female.

The falcates only have one generation a year, but that seems to be enough, considering how many are flying right now.  The message here is to look carefully when you see a butterfly on a leaf or stem and you may get to see the beginning of a new life.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Orangetips of Spring

Falcate orangetip on spring beauty
This picture summarizes early spring, a falcate orangetip butterfly clinging to a spring beauty*, each of which is a harbinger of the season.

If you go into the woods now, you will notice a tiny white butterfly flitting frenetically around, and occasionally you may even notice a flash of orange on its tiny wing.  It may stop occasionally for a nectar load but usually it just appears confused.  The orange tells us that it is a male falcate orangetip, Anthocharis midea, and he is on patrol, looking for what tickles his fancy, a lady falcate.

Although they both carry the orangetip name, only the males have the orange on the upper wing.  Both sexes have an intricate green marbling on the underwings, almost like lichen on a rock.  This is effective camouflage as long as they keep their wings folded shut at rest.
Note wing spot- Photo by Miles M. Buddy **
Once they have mated, the female will deposit a single egg on a mustard leaf, fortunately a common plant in nature.  This behavior is a necessary precaution as her caterpillars not only feed on mustard, usually the flower petals or seeds, but they will on occasion feed on their siblings, a charming little cannibalistic trait.

Chrysalis - Kim Fleming

They fly for only a few weeks and then are through for the year.  Their young caterpillars will go through several instar stages, then pupate in May.  The chrysalis has a spike at the head, and attached to a branch it perfectly mimics a thorn.  They overwinter in the chrysalis, sometimes for two or more years.  It is no wonder that they are frantic when they take flight in the spring.

* Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica is interesting as well.  It is one of many plants whose seeds are spread by ants, a process called myrmecochory. The seeds have a fleshy organ called an elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants take the seeds to their nest, eat the elaiosomes, and put the seeds in their nest debris, where they are protected until they germinate. They also get the added bonus of growing in a medium made richer by the ant nest debris."

** Miles M. Buddy is a 14 y.o. naturalist from North Carolina whose bio is at this Bugguide link.

Friday, April 10, 2015

More Woodpeckers

Northern Flicker- Bob Moul
 We have always been interested in identifying a new bird but after a trip to Honduras with "real birders" and cataract surgery, it is a whole new game.  Spotting a bird flying into a tangle of branches and then finding it in the binoculars had previously been an exercise in frustration.

First, Brad Jacobs and Rick Thom taught me to stare at the bird's landing spot while bringing the binoculars up, never moving your eyes.  That was the most important lesson.  Next fix the cataract so you can actually see the bird's identifying markings.  (Learning bird calls is a whole other thing.)

This all came together last week up on the ridge when I heard three birds calling, announcing their territory.  The call was reminiscent of a red-bellied woodpecker that was in a hurry, the call higher pitched and compressed like a 33rpm record played at 45rpm.  That is a phonograph record for you kids.

I saw a bird fly to a distant snag tree and hang on the shady side like a woodpecker.  It was flying back and forth to another distant tree and I could hear it pecking at the wood.  I worked my way closer and could get brief glimpses of a white belly and a head that seemed more intensely red.  I got a couple of pictures at 45x before it flew away, confirming it was a red-headed woodpecker, a first for me.

Two days later I went on a mission to get a better photograph.  Starting out in the early afternoon when the light would be better, I sat at the base of a nearby tree with a good view of the snag.  After a brief nap in the afternoon sun, I heard the distant call repeated, just as I had heard on that morning.

This time the woodpecker flew in repeatedly, hanging on the shady side of the tree before flying off with its treasures.  The distant call of another red-head perked it up and it flew to the other side for a moment to look around and I got my shot.

Red-headed Woodpecker - finally!
On the way back home, I flushed a couple of birds in the field, tan colored but with the distinctive bobbing flight of a woodpecker.  One landed on a distant tree and Brad's lessons paid off again with a good view of a Northern flicker, seen above.

Flickers are woodpeckers with a little less wood.  They eat more beetles and ants, digging them out with their specialized bill, re-purposed with a slight curve for the dig.  I had seen woodpeckers frequently in the fields but had never had a good look before to see that these were woodpeckers of another color. mentions that you can find them by walking around the wooded edges of fields just like where we now see them.  They use their barbed tongue to pull out ants, a relatively messy meal compared to reaching into a pecked hole in wood. 

You can see more of the late Bob Moul's beautiful nature photography in these Pbase albums.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Osprey Cam

Osprey on a fish search - Joe Motto
There is a new osprey nest cam operating around Stockton Lake, and the feel-good story behind it is available at this Springfield News-Leader link.

They migrate to Mexico in the winter, returning to raise their families, and any year there are between 10-20 nesting pairs in Missouri.  They build their nests in high structures with a view, and there-in lies the problem.  Around Stockton, power line transmission towers provide the prime real estate.  This creates a risk for fires, destroying nests and interrupting electrical transmission grids.

Empire District Electric Company faced this problem and contacted Greater Ozarks Audubon Society (GOAS) to work on a solution.  Working before the osprey returned this year, Empire built a nesting platform on a rugged ridge near Stockton reservoir and transplanted a nest from a nearby transmission tower, including a webcam to monitor the nest.

Empire's osprey cam
The move was just in time for the spring osprey housing market season and a lucky osprey family has moved in.  You can see the results on the live osprey cam here.
"Ospreys, sometimes referred to as fish eagles, are magnificent raptors that live near large bodies of water and eat primarily fish. They can be found on many of the lakes and rivers in the Ozarks during migration. They are slightly smaller than an eagle and not as bulky. On some of our beautiful Ozarks lakes, like Stockton, where ospreys nest, it is not uncommon to see several on any given day during the warm seasons. Osprey nests are rare in Missouri, however, with the Missouri Department of Conservation reporting only 10 to 20 statewide in 2014. In the winter, they head for the Gulf of Mexico, Central, or South America."  News-Leader
Empire is considering building more nesting towers.  At a time when conservation causes and big business don't always play well together, lets hear it for GOAS and Empire District Electric Company.

More on these magnificent birds including photographs and video is at

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Goose in a Tree

Canada goose in Washington Park, Denver - W. Gerecht
The Gerechts in Denver sent this picture with the following note.  "It is mating season here in Denver. The Canadian geese are in the trees, on the roofs and anyplace high, screaming to the world, that they would make the best mate (I assume it is the males)."  If this was any of my usual associates I might have thought alcohol and Photoshop was involved, but this was real.

Having watched geese land on earth, I would have never guessed they could hang on to a tree limb.  On the other hand, I doubt they could climb the trunk like a nuthatch or woodpecker.  As usual, that great repository of ornithological knowledge, Google, came to the rescue.

 Canada geese in Canada, nesting in a tree stump - DNCB
It turns out that others have seen this behavior.  A wild "goose in a tree" search brings up a bunch of pictures without any more details. Delta Nats Casual Birding in Canada even report finding a pair of Canada Geese that had started nesting in a tree trunk/stump about 30 feet high.

MPG Ranch manages 10,000 acres in western Montana.  They have this video showing a pair of Canada geese nesting in a sycamore tree.  It turns out this must be a Montana thing.  At the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, an old Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom video documents Canada geese nesting in trees in a swamp, apparently to escape from ground based predators.  Watch the final two goslings make their big leap from the nest at 11:20, looking like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with feathers.

Burwick taught me that you never call them Canadian - it is Canada geese.  Eh?  Furthermore, it is unlikely they have ever seen Canada as they are likely to be resident geese this time of year.  He tells this story.
"A few years ago, a pair of Canada geese took over an eagle's nest located high up in a sycamore tree below Fellow's Lake dam. Literally took it over, they ran out the eagles that were already setting on eggs."
Having seen what geese do on the sidewalks of the Springfield Botanical Center, I am thankful that tree nesting hasn't occurred in our park.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Morel? True or False

A friend of ours sent me this picture, asking, "Found this puppy in the woods today. It’s a little more than 6 in. tall. Is it edible?" With morel hunting season around the corner, this is a great question.

First, everything is "edible" if your teeth can penetrate it, grind it up or you can swallow it whole. Do not eat this one. This is a false morel. Some people say they and their family have eaten them for years and love them. Of course I have never personally spoken with anyone who died from eating them but there are many reports.

The problem is that there are several species of false morels (genus Gyromitra) which require an expert mycologist to identify. Furthermore, there is uncertainty about which are toxic. Boiling them twice and draining off the water is said to remove most of the toxin but the fumes can make you sick and the boiled morel can still make you sick even if less likely to die. Finally it contains N-methyl-N-formylhydrazine which in addition to being a hemolytic toxin has been shown to be carcinogenic in mice.
"Although they are much sought after in Europe as an edible species (Gyromitra esculenta), 2 to 4 per cent of all mushroom fatalities are associated with them. It is not clear whether the same species occurs in North America, although we call one species here by that name. The active ingredient is called gyromitrin (N-methyl-N-formylhydrazine), which is metabolized to monomethylhydrazine (rocket fuel!) in the body." *
False morel - Linda Ellis
The false morel Gyromitra are easy to differentiate from true morels (genus Morchella). First of all they are reddish in color. Next slit the mushroom lengthwise. False morel's cap sits on top of the stipe (stem) while true morel's cap extends down the stipe. Even more fundamental, the stipe of a true morel is hollow while the false is solid with irregular chambers. Don't eat one with a solid stipe!
True morels cut open -  Great Morel
If you find a mess of morels with a hollow stipe but you are still wary of eating them, leave the bucket of them on our porch and I will take care of the problem.
* Tom Volk's Fungus page has a comprehensive discussion of false morels.