Saturday, October 15, 2016

Life on a Burned Prairie

 Becky Swearingen shared her photographs and this story of a newly burned prairie.

I. Freshly Burned Prairie
On September 18th I decided to visit around the Lockwood area and ended the day at Niawathe Prairie. This was the day the Master Naturalists had intended to visit so it seemed appropriate. Ends up the north side of the prairie was recently burned and while I always find it sad to see a burned prairie, I know it is best for the prairie’s health.

The advantage for a photographer is that it allows one to see things that would normally be hidden in the prairie’s lush growth.  I saw several snake skins, one of which I think actually was not a skin but a snake that was a victim of the fire.

Shed snake skin
Victim of the fire? Hard to tell, but there seemed to be flesh.
This crispy critter was definitely a fire victim.

But there was life among the ashes.  This larval Glowworm Beetle came wandering through. I would have never seen it if there had not been fire.

There were lots and lots of grasshoppers.  Hopefully they like their grass well done.  This Differential Grasshopper stood out against the burned prairie floor.

And several varieties of moths.  This one is probably a webworm moth of some variety.

A Chorus Frog came hopping by, unconcerned by the blackened dry prairie floor.  It was  camouflaged with its black stripes matching the burned grass stalks.

Life is returning to the scorched ground already.

Next spring a healthier prairie will come back to life.  The seed head below, pale and delicate yet somehow surviving the conflagration and is ready to create new plants.

And as I left the prairie that evening I saw one of the beneficiaries of a healthy prairie, a Northern Bobwhite, looking for a home for the winter. The quail chicks will be the size of a fingernail and start hunting insects on day one.  The open spaces between the bunches of fresh prairie grass are necessary for their survival, one more reason to burn.

II. Burned Prairie Redux 

Redux means “brought back” and that is what is happening at Niawathe a week after I first visited the burned out prairie. Already there is lots of green and even a few early flowers.

Among the new life, I did find signs of the old. Most interestingly, I found these tiny skeletal remains. A result of the fire? I don’t know.

I also found an egg. This one has been there for a while I believe as it had dirt on the inside.

This millipede was going about its business. It is too young to identify the specific variety. It was a little perturbed with me when I moved it to the ground to get a better picture but soon continued on its way.

There was a small group of Horned Larks that were flying around and feeding among the new grass shoots.  They prefer open ground with short grass.  Herds of bison provided this but freshly burned prairie is a good substitute.

The katydids are very visible against the blackened earth.

I think my favorite find was this Spider Wasp (Psorthaspis). Its bright orange stripes stood out quite boldly against the dark earth.

Less boldly colored was this Common Checkered Skipper - Pyrgus communis.

From its behavior it appeared to be laying eggs.

This lively cricket blended in with the blackened soil.  Its natural color provides good camouflage against the burned prairie.

I moved back to the road after walking through the burned area for an hour or so, finding this beautiful and tiny Pencil Flower.

And then saw a gleam of white. As I examined it I found a Meadow Katydid on the remains of a small animal’s vertebra.  Even after a burn some green survives, both in plants and animals.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Oak Bullet Galls

Maturing gall - REK

This is the time of year when we find Oak Stem Bullet Galls.  They will be changing from yellow orange to brown and woody over the next month.  The bright color looks tender but it is a hard shell, derived from the woody twig tissue.  These galls house the larva of the Round Bullet Gall Wasp - Disholcaspis quercusglobulus.

When you cut through one there is the larva  tucked into its little cavity.  Somehow they manage to avoid injury, dodging to the side of the razor blade.  With a little prodding the larva will come out and wiggle around.

The adults are said to emerge in late October although I haven't yet collected one.  At least I am in good company as Charley Eiseman says all he has collected thus far are parasitoids. According to Charley the adults have been observed to oviposit on white oak twigs immediately after emerging and the resulting spring gall isn't known.

  Joshua Stuart Rose

  Joshua Stuart Rose

Joshua Stuart Rose was able to collect one from a gall and photograph the specimen that had become attached to tape and shared these pictures with me.

According to this OSU publication Oak Bullet Galls have nectaries, plant organs that produce sugary nectar.
"The sugary treat exuded from the nectaries serves as a “bribe” to entice ants and stinging insects that offer protection to the immature gall-maker. A predator or parasitoid intent upon targeting the helpless wasp larva within the gall would need to run a gauntlet of stinging and biting insects fueled by sugar! The down-side is that heavily galled trees may literally buzz with stinging insects, presenting a serious challenge if the tree is located near a home."
So far, I haven't observed this effect and haven't felt the sticky surface found on some other extrafloral nectary producing galls.   I have however found other inhabitants using galls as a home.  Something had chewed a larger opening in this bullet gall.  I could see a tiny spider under magnification but never convinced it to come out for a picture.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Wasps You Can Dig

We are having lots of reports of this Blue-winged Wasp, Scolia dubia, on Goldenrod. This plant is a favorite of this Digger Wasp which gets most of its energy from nectar. Most of the Internet photographs show them on White Clover and Goldenrod or other yellow blossoms. This is a gorgeous wasp with its colorful abdomen and metallic blue wings.

The male S. dubia has a more slender body and longer antennae but with nothing to compare it to, I wasn't able to make the distinction. The give away would be the tail end. Males have a distinctive three-pronged pseudostinger and can't harm you. Females have the ability to sting but rarely do unless held. The males will hover just above the ground in the morning, awaiting an innocent newborn female to mate with. By evening they give up and congregate in a "boys club" to roost with their buddies before trying again in the morning. 
Scolia dubia on Goldenrod - REK

The real beauty of this digger wasp is what it digs. The female digs into the soil after grubs, especially of Cotinis, June Beetles. These are common in our front yard where they feed the moles that tunnel subsurface like a border drug cartel. Even better, they have developed an appetite for invasive Japanese beetle larva. They will sting the larva to paralyze it, then dig down farther and lay an egg on its prey. The wasp larva is an external parasite that will eat on the grub, then spin a cocoon and remain in a prepupal state (still a larva) until summer when it pupates and finally emerges late summer as an adult.* This probably accounts for why we see so many in Goldenrod season.* 
See "Bug Eric" Eaton for details.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Chimney Swifts

You may have seen some strange people hanging around Columns IV on East Sunshine, all craning their necks up. If you joined them you too could have had a stiff neck and the awe inspiring vision of chimney swifts swarming and plunging into one of the columns.

Barn Swallows on a fence - REK

Clinging to a chimney -
People tend to lump swifts and barn swallows together but there are significant differences. They both migrate to South America and build their nests on vertical surfaces but that is where the resemblance ends.  Swifts are unable to perch on a branch, wire or even land on a flat surface. They spend their entire life either flying or clinging to a perpendicular surface.  They migrate to North America from Bolivia, Peru and the Upper Amazon River Basin in the spring, frequently seeking out their previous nesting sites. They are frequently described as "flying cigars" or "bow and arrows" for their shape as they fly frantically across the sky. 
Flying Cigar -

Swifts historically have built their nests in hollow trees, forming a community that is frequently quite crowded. Life was good for a swift until the arrival of European settlers. As they expanded westward, they cut down trees, especially dead ones for fuel, a wholesale removal of nesting sites. The only good news was the stone chimneys they built on their cabins, providing a convenient nesting substitute.

In a swift tower -
The population of chimney swifts has declined precipitously across the majority of their range which extends across North America and Southern Eastern Canada. Home construction has changed and urban homes have started capping their chimneys to prevent nestings. Many of the old industrial smokestacks such as those in downtown Springfield have been torn down.  Also a change in the insect populations due to insecticides has likely affected their diet.

Swifts can entertain your pet
We always enjoy the return of the swifts to our chimneys. They make a faint twittering sound, barely audible through the fireplace doors, entertaining our schnauzer Shiann for hours at a time.  They arrive in late spring after fireplace season and after their brood has fledged they leave our chimney to gather in large numbers in larger structures.  Even then, they return to circle our house in the fall as an encore before heading to literally "hang out" with their friends.

Watershed Center towers under construction
Now there is a movement to construct nesting towers for swifts.  There are plans and videos for these structures, lined with wood and to resemble a chimney without the fireplace.  In Springfield this has been promoted and sponsored by Jim Fossard, an active GOAS (Greater Ozarks Audubon) member and passionate advocate for chimney swifts.  Towers are now in place at the Watershed Center at Valley Water Mill Park and at the Springfield Botanical Gardens. 

Chimney towers on a home
You to can have both an active fireplace for use in the winter and a home for swifts in the summer as described in this link.  How?  Don't cap your chimney and if you have a cap, take it off.  Meanwhile, you can see the swifts in action at some of the few remaining large collecting sites next year.  Bob and Beth Kick of our MN Chapter took this video which shows the action at Columns IV this week. The show starts 30 minutes before sunset and although most of the swifts are headed south for the winter some may remain.  Enjoy.

Thanks to John Schwartz of for generously sharing his photographs, and to Jim Fossard for educating all of us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Hibiscus Plant Bug

Colorful bugs in a seed head - REK
At the Master Naturalist Bioblitz last Saturday, one of my favorites was spotted by Linda Ellis who was leading the plant team.  There were a lot of seed heads on the the Halberd-leaf Rosemallow, Hibiscus militaris, aka H. laevis,  along the bridge over the water garden.  While she was collecting seed she noticed these tiny beetles.

Multiple instars- REK
The bugs that I shook out of the seed heads were too small for my macro and traveled too fast for the microscope so they went into my tolerant loving wife's refrigerator.  These are Scentless Plant Bug larvae, formally called Niesthrea louisianica.  They are very colorful and noted to have a wide range of colors.

Chilling out under the microscope
Like their stink bug cousins they have a proboscis that drills into the plant and sucks out its juices.  We are plagued by Box Elder bugs with similar habits but these don't come inside to overwinter in our houses.  Instead they stay in the duff, mate in the spring and raise several generations over the summer. 

There are lots of mallows in nature including cotton and okra.  I wear cotton but have a pathological aversion to okra to the point that I delighted in brush hogging the plants that remained in our garden at the end of the season.

H. militaris larva on a toothpick
On the other hand, there is the invasive Velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) which was introduced to the US from China in the 1750's to make rope but failed to be popular.  It can be eaten with some effort but so can many weeds.  It is a pest in agricultural fields and our little H. militaris has developed an appetite for it.  Introduction into fields has reduced the population of these weeds.

I didn't find any adults among the two dozen I collected but I am sure they are out there.  They didn't seem to have any noticeable impact on our mallow which were going to seed quite successfully.  This is just one more example of a food web, for good or bad, under our radar.

Details at